As Lugar Learned, Experience Is No Silver Bullet in Politics

As a Capitol Hill intern in the mid-'70s, I heard a story about a young, eager-beaver freshman congressman who spent a considerable amount of time in the well of the House, badgering the floor managers about the intricacies of the legislation being considered.

The story goes that one senior member finally turned to the new member and said, “Son, your problem is that you think this place is on the level.” That story came to mind 20 years later when I found myself on a flight from Des Moines to Chicago sitting across the aisle from Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who was running for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. Lugar had participated in a candidate event in the early-caucus state.

On paper, Lugar had it all. He had been an Eagle Scout, a Rhodes Scholar, and a young naval officer who served as an intelligence briefer for legendary Adm. Arleigh Burke. Once out of the service and back in Indiana, he served as a two-term mayor of Indianapolis at a time when the city was turning a corner. Elected to the Senate and subsequently chairing the Agriculture and later the Foreign Relations committees, Lugar was held in high regard on both sides of the aisle. But that mattered little—he never scratched the surface in the presidential race.

Sometimes the process isn’t entirely on the level, though it’s not as if Republicans nominated someone unqualified the following year. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, himself with impressive credentials, went on to carry the GOP banner, besting a field of 11 Republicans. But the fact that Lugar, despite his many accomplishments, never even caught a serious glance is a little bit dispiriting.

After losing reelection in the primary in 2012 to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock—who then lost the general election to Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly—he went on to set up the Lugar Center, a public-policy institute that, among many other good things, joins Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy to release the annual Bipartisan Index, rating each member of Congress on how often they work across party lines.

Lugar passed away on Sunday at age 87, but he left quite a legacy.

Preceding Lugar’s death by a month was the death of his former Indiana colleague and another distinguished public servant, three-term Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh. Bayh had the distinction of being the first person since the Founding Fathers to author two adopted amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the 25th Amendment in 1967 on presidential succession after the death, disability, or resignation of a president, and the 26th Amendment in 1971, lowering the national voting age to 18.

Bayh also was the author of Title IX, expanding educational opportunities for women. Bayh, who prior to his election to the Senate was the youngest ever speaker of the Indiana House, ran for president in 1976, and like Lugar, despite a wealth of experience, came up short—though he did come in second place in the Iowa caucuses and third in the New Hampshire primary before dropping out. Bayh lost reelection in 1980 to then-Rep. Dan Quayle.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s entry into the Democratic presidential field last week will be a test of whether experience like that of Lugar and Bayh matters.

Biden is like a heavily loaded 747 airliner that will either clear the tree line or not. Will Democrats seek someone who represents the opposite of President Trump, someone with vast governing experience accumulated over 36 years in the Senate (like Lugar, he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) and eight years as vice president? Or do they want a fresh and young face, or perhaps someone who is not from the political establishment, someone who will shake things up?

The next two to three months will provide plenty of clues about his formidability. Until then, there is plenty of debate about it here in Washington. An experienced and well-positioned Democrat argued to me Monday that Biden may not even make it to the South Carolina primary. Biden is banking on combining moral outrage aimed at Trump with a reassurance that he is an adult and uniquely prepared for the job.

In a lot of ways, party members contemplating their choices of possible presidential nominees—particularly when facing a big field of candidates—are a bit like car shoppers. For some, the final choice will come after painstaking research, for others it is purely on impulse. Some start out thinking about one category but end up choosing from another.

Pollsters may now ask, “If the election were held today, for whom would you vote?”—but the fact is the election isn’t today, tomorrow, next week or month, or even this year. Some ultimately will drive away with a pickup truck, others with a Prius. (Indeed, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler wrote a book released last year titled Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide, on how worldviews explain political choices).

We can have theories and immerse ourselves in the details, but voters often make seemingly inexplicable decisions that can only be rationalized afterwards. Lugar's inability to even get off the ground illustrates that.