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Lugar's Loss: America's Wake-Up Call

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Sen. Richard Lugar's loss in the Indiana Republican primary last week raises a number of troubling issues about the current state of politics and the future of governance in our country.

Throughout our history, compromise and bipartisanship have allowed us to face the challenges and opportunities of a changing world.

The countries that haven't done this are those run by dictators or kings. If we're ever going to get our federal government to work again, we're going to need folks in Congress - such as Lugar - who are willing to ignore party labels and work with whoever has ideas that can be incorporated in an overall plan to improve the country.

If we're going to be able to keep fair-minded and intelligent people as representatives, we have to address the issues raised by this loss.

Chief among them is the nearly unlimited amounts of money for attack ads. Lugar's race, as well as a number of the GOP presidential primary contests, showed the power of attack ads in being able to destroy strong political "brands" such as Lugar's. If decades of positives can be canceled out by a few months of heavy ad rotation and targeted direct mail, then most political campaigns are going to come down to who can say the nastiest things the most often with the most effective ad agencies.

And, surprisingly, these attacks seem to work better against someone well-known with a long record than someone relatively unknown with a slim record. In low-turnout primaries, coordinated outside campaign money can come in and turn an election around fairly effectively.

Success in one state adds more funds for these groups and thus more clout in other contests.

Demands for ideological purity is another one. Deviation from the latest version of political gospel is becoming grounds for political excommunication. Pledges never to raise any tax or to lock one's position in on a range of issues are becoming more and more prevalent.

Votes from years ago that had broad support are used to rebrand distinguished officeholders such as Lugar. One wonders whether positions taken by conservative icons such as Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater, not to mention Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford or either Bush, would allow them to pass muster with today's enforcers of political purity. When these gatekeepers are able to make an election a referendum on the incumbent rather than a choice between competing candidates, then independent thinking becomes an albatross.

Rejection of bipartisanship and compromise is a third. This country exists because of the compromises - some good, some bad, some harmless - that were part of our founding documents.

As a newly elected Republican Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana with a 7-2 Democratic City Council, I knew I would have to work across the aisle to get things done. The classic line in local government is that there's not a Democratic way or Republican way to shovel snow or fill potholes - you just want to make sure that the job gets done.

Reagan reached compromises with Tip O'Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, to reform taxes and strengthen Social Security. Bill Clinton reached compromises with the Republican Congress to reform welfare and balance the budget.

In this same spirit, Lugar led and supported many successful bi-partisan initiatives to help his state, our country and the world.

While we mourn his departure, we ought to thank him for his decades-long service, and learn from his record and history on how best to make our political and governmental system work for us in the future. And making it work ought to be the ultimate goal of every campaign and every voter, or else, we could doom ourselves to an interminable span of do-nothing Congresses.