The way Bob Dole's haphazard presidential campaign is coughing and wheezing along these days, Republicans must be secretly wishing they had taken Richard Lugar's candidacy more seriously in last winter's primary race. Lugar may be dull, but at least he is not brain dead.
The Indiana senator is highly respected in Washington for his foreign policy expertise and his refusal to toe the ideological chalk line laid down by his party's right wing. He has a strong environmental record, supports a ban on assault weapons and has stood up for the school lunch program and other nutrition programs for the poor. But as a presidential candidate, Lugar was a big dud. The press and the primary voters barely acknowledged his reach for the nation's highest office. One pundit dubbed him "Dead Man Walking."
No one would argue that Lugar would have been a more formidable challenger to President Clinton. Ideas, as Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas discovered in past presidential campaigns, can carry a candidate only so far. A president is looked to for leadership, and the qualities involved are not easily measured. To be successful, a president must be able to speak to and for the nation, and move it the direction he wants it to go. Some are better at it than others.
As a contender for the Republican nomination, Lugar made the mistake of thinking that ideas were more important than money and interest-group politics. Poor fellow, he was written off early because he was said to lack charisma and was able to raise only $5-million. His ideas were not given the time of day.
"I discovered to my dismay that, when it comes to important ideas, a presidential campaign is a wasteland," Lugar wrote in a recent Washington Post commentary reflecting upon his failed presidential bid.
You only have to listen to the political debate between President Clinton and Bob Dole to appreciate the truth of Lugar's statement. Dole has yet to bring a serious idea forward, and as for Clinton, he is flitting about the country calling for truancy laws, curfews, V-chips, school uniforms and a crackdown on deadbeat dads. Like Dole, Clinton offers no over-arching vision of the future in domestic or foreign policy.
So what did Lugar offer the country? Some good ideas and a few bad ones that deserved more discussion than they got.
He wrote in the Post: "I called for fundamental tax reform as a necessity for achieving economic growth. This portion of my campaign was usually summarily noted by observing that I favored ending income taxes and abolishing the Internal Revenue Service. Because the bit about the IRS was one of too few good applause lines I had, the press suggested I had cynically added it on to touch up a dull campaign. If I was really serious, they added, my proposal for a national sales tax was regressive and unfair to poor people, and the chance of it becoming law was nil. But in general, that didn't matter, because political writers never assumed I was serious about it."
Lugar's national sales tax didn't rate a serious analysis. But Steve Forbes, the wealthy magazine publisher, comes along with a flat tax proposal and the press falls into hot pursuit. For a brief moment, Forbes was considered a serious candidate, even though he was not in Lugar's class. Forbes spent millions from his personal fortune promoting himself as the flat-tax candidate. Lugar says of the Forbes flat tax: "This, too, was treated as a flawed policy by the media, but at least they reported it."
Where Lugar stood head and shoulders above his opponents was in the area of foreign policy. But absent a national security crisis, there wasn't much chance the press or the voters would pay much attention to foreign policy in this election year. Someone forgot to tell him, "It's not foreign policy, stupid."
Lugar, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tried to argue that the president of the United States has unique responsibilities as commander in chief of the armed forces and leader of the nation's foreign policy. He wrote: "During the primary campaign, I spoke often and in detail about the necessity of American leadership in Europe, especially with regard to the missions and membership of NATO; about this country's essential role in creating security arrangements in Asia, and also in helping to protect and expand democracy in the Western Hemisphere. I talked of the great opportunity at hand to work with friends in Africa in coming years."
"On all these issues, and on other foreign policy initiatives I promised to undertake as president, I expected to have my proposals subjected to tough scrutiny and skepticism, primarily on their efficacy and expense. But in a year of presidential campaigning, I had no need to fear or even expect challenge. Virtually everything I suggested in regard to defense, foreign policy, or presidential leadership was ignored by my rivals and by most potential voters."
Lugar may be remembered as the candidate who tried to make terrorism an issue. "I delivered a speech on the immediate dangers of nuclear leakage into the hands of rogue governments and terrorists, saying this was our most important national security problem and that a nuclear crisis would surely occur if we failed to secure these materials," he wrote.
Lugar's warning about nuclear terrorism, however, could not compete with Pat Buchanan's pitchfork brigade storming the castles of corporate America.
We can relax now. Lugar is back in the Senate, where his views carry weight, and the Clinton-Dole contest is not likely to require Americans to give serious thought to anything. Let the sound bites fly.