More than 80 members of Congress, including a dozen senators, are leaving office at the end of this term. Many have served the country well. But two stand out for their commitment to American leadership in the world and to bipartisan cooperation at home: Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.
Between them, Lieberman, 70, and Lugar, 80, have served 60 years in the Senate. Each would have remained still longer, had it not been for what has become a crippling political disability — working too close to the center. Lugar was defeated in a Republican primary by tea party favorite Richard Mourdock, whose extremism caused him to lose the Senate seat to a Democrat. Lieberman won re-election as an independent in 2006 after losing a primary to a more liberal Democrat, but he chose not to try to repeat that feat this year.
Both men realized some of their greatest accomplishments by partnering with senators from the opposing party. Lugar joined with former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., to create the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in 1992, which funded the elimination of more than 7,500 nuclear warheads, plus hundred of intercontinental missiles, bombers and submarines, from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Lieberman joined with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to press for U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s; later, the two and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., provided crucial support for President George W. Bush’s “surge” strategy in Iraq.
Both senators were known for valuing principle over party loyalty. In 1998, Lieberman delivered a searing indictment on the Senate floor of President Bill Clinton for his misconduct with Monica Lewinsky, while opposing his removal from office. He was devoted to increasing educational opportunity for poor children, especially in the District of Columbia. Lugar supported treaties reducing nuclear and chemical weapons despite the pacts’ unpopularity among many Republicans.
In farewell speeches to the Senate last week, the two lamented the growing political polarization in Washington. “Too often in recent years, members of Congress have locked themselves to a slate of inflexible positions, many of which have no hope of being implemented in a divided government,” said Lugar. “Too often we have failed to listen to one another and question whether the orthodox views being promulgated by our parties make strategic sense for America’s future.”
The senators also pleaded for continued American leadership in the world. “The fact is that none of the biggest problems facing the world can or will be solved in the absence of American leadership,” said Lieberman. “It will require leaders who will stand against the siren song of isolationism, who will defend our defense and foreign assistance budgets, who will support — when necessary — the use of America’s military power.”
The Connecticut senator struck a characteristically optimistic note, saying that during the 24 years he had served, both the world and the United States had become more free, more open and more prosperous. True enough; but if that progress is to continue, we’ll need more senators committed to the internationalism and the bipartisanship of Dick Lugar and Joe Lieberman.
The Washington Post (Dec. 21)