Lugar Calls on Obama to Revive Civility in Political Discourse
Six-term U.S. Senate veteran Richard Lugar used his first speech since leaving office last month to address the nation’s ”out of control” partisanship, criticize Congress for failing basic tests of governing and call on President Obama to sit down with political foes for potentially healing dialogs.
Lugar delivered the 2013 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy on Tuesday. He spent the day visiting public policy classes and meeting with groups of students.
Congress’ failures in foreign policy, once a reliable zone of bipartisan cooperation, are evidence that the partisan divide is extreme and perhaps the worst in the nation’s history, Lugar said. He cited legislators’ inability to ratify “even non-controversial, job-producing tax treaties,” to come to any consensus during the Iraq war or to act in Libya.
Likewise, the intensity of opposition to GOP Sen. Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination to defense secretary is a result of “resentments of some conservatives … who regard his independent thinking as political blasphemy for which he should not be rewarded.” In a vote Tuesday in the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, all Hagel’s fellow Republicans voted against his nomination.
Above: Sen. Lugar talks with Sanford Dean Bruce Kuniholm. Photo credit: Les Todd, Duke Photography
Due to partisan roadblocks, “Congress is largely failing to pursue systematic reviews of the most strategically important questions in foreign policy,” Lugar said.
While he acknowledged the destructive fallout from the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on political campaigns, Lugar blamed the uncivil tone of discourse mainly on “a massive industry that makes money off of political discord.” This industry encompasses broadcast, online and print media, think tanks and Super PACs. American media have always thrived on controversy, but in the Internet era age both the opportunities and the political rewards have mushroomed, Lugar said.
The divide is worsened by the attitude of younger legislators who distain life in Washington and resort to “cyber voting.” Personal relationships have broken down, making trust a scarce commodity during difficult policy negotiations, Lugar said.
Obama, who has been criticized by both parties for insularity, should lead an effort to change the political dynamic in Washington, Lugar said. He should regularly summon congressional leaders to the White House for “private, informal, and unhurried” meetings. “Dealing person to person you can be very effective… I think this would be appreciated by the country. I think he would be surprised ... if he did spend this time, it would be time well spent.”
Lugar noted that Obama devoted his first-term energies to legislation to reform health care and slow the pace of climate change, while “the electorate had become consumed with the anguish of unemployment, the loss of income for so many families, the loss of prospects for their children…” The country’s economic problems “overwhelmed discussion of anything else,” Lugar said.
While his cap-and trade efforts failed, Obama was able to push through the Affordable Care Act via parliamentary maneuvers that Lugar called “not particularly a statesmanlike activity,” but understandable given the extreme partisan climate.
Lugar said changing to a single primary system such as California's could provide voters with more opportunities to vote for moderate candidates of either party, but he did not see a third party emerging.
Lugar said the nation’s anguish, anger and dissatisfaction with Congress are unlikely to subside until unemployment decreases to around 4 percent. Until then, “constituents do not want to talk about anything else.” He called the $16 trillion national debt “the 800-pound gorilla of American governance,” that must be addressed through bipartisan action.
During a question and answer session, Lugar responded to questions on foreign policy and politics. He commented that North Korea’s nuclear test this week underscores the “severe problem” with the lack of communication between the United States and North Korea. More U.S. diplomats and businesspeople need to visit North Korea, and more broadcasts into North Korea are needed to spark “conversation with ordinary people and the rest of the world,” he said.