05/09/2012 08:50 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Lugar's Loss and Jesse's Ghost

What's a conservative Republican not to like in a veteran senator who voted against President Obama's economic recovery "stimulus," against his health care overhaul, against his tightened regulation of Wall Street, and against "cap-and-trade" controls on global warming?

Yet over 60 percent of Indiana Republican voters yesterday decided that six-term senator Richard Lugar was not conservative enough for them, and they were prepared to run the risk of losing the Senate seat by dumping him in favor of a Tea Party favorite.

There is really only one area where Lugar has not marched in lock-step with prevailing right-wing dogma, and that is foreign policy. His ouster should set off alarm bells about the seizure of power over his party's foreign policy discourse by the aggressively nationalist right.

The only vote his conservative opponents could cite against him, aside from supporting Obama's two nominees to the Supreme Court, was his vote to approve ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, the first significant cut in the two nuclear superpowers' arsenals since the elder President Bush's first START pact with Mikhail Gorbachev.

New START was a no-brainer in the long effort to reduce nuclear dangers and shore up flagging international support for enforcement of nonproliferation obligations. Former president George H.W. Bush and all six living Republican former Secretaries of State supported ratification. So Lugar had plenty of august company among Republican statesmen who understand world realities.

But a hysterical campaign by nuclear-weapons advocates -- the Dr. Strangeloves of the new conservative orthodoxy on foreign policy -- frightened off a majority of Republican senators. In 1992, Senate Republicans had voted for President Bush's START treaty by a 37-to-5 margin; in 2010 they voted against the follow-up New START by a 13-to-26 margin.

Besides Lugar, only two of the eight Republican senators now on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted for New START. While Lugar's long-time nemesis on the foreign relations committee, Jesse Helms, could rarely count on a majority of committee Republicans to willingly support his malignant foreign policy crusades, the current membership seems far more attuned to the old-time segregationist's contempt for the international community than to Lugar's support for diplomatic engagement.

Lugar led a lonely fight against chairman Helms when the North Carolinian, an obsessive foe of the United Nations, bludgeoned the Clinton administration into endorsing U.S. nonpayment of U.N. assessments till specified Helms demands were met. His challenge to the Helms-Clinton deal was defeated, 25-73. Tellingly, the other three Republicans who joined him in the vote to honor U.N. Charter obligations would all be driven out of an increasingly rigid Republican Party in the next decade.

Lugar was not insensible to his party's rightward march on foreign policy. When Helms had quietly lined up the Republican votes to block the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1999, Lugar joined Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner in seeking to avoid a Senate floor vote that would antagonize America's NATO allies. But when Helms forced the vote anyway, he meekly joined in voting against it.

Lugar voted for the younger George Bush's resolution to authorize invading Iraq. As chairman of the foreign relations committee in 2005, he dutifully scheduled and supported Bush's nomination of Helms acolyte John Bolton to be U.S. representative to the United Nations, leaving to others the successful fight to block his confirmation.

For the advocates of scorched-earth politics on the right, however, such concessions could never be enough. They told Indiana Republicans that Lugar's willingness to work with Democrats on foreign-policy legislation (legislation embraced by professionals in his own party!) marked him as a dreaded "RINO" -- a Republican In Name Only.

In his gracious concession speech Tuesday night, Lugar slyly rebutted his tormentors on the right, citing as his proudest accomplishment in the Senate the (bipartisan!) Nunn-Lugar law to finance the permanent dismantling of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities throughout the former Soviet Union. To the right, the very notion of binding treaties and cooperation with past adversaries is anathema.

Full disclosure here: I contributed to Lugar's campaign after realizing the seriousness of the hard right's challenge to him -- part of my own small-means effort to support the continued survival of an internationalist wing in the Republican Party. So far this election cycle, I am 0 for 2 in that cause.

Democrats now think they can pick up Lugar's Indiana seat this fall. But even if they do, America is worse off for losing him. When principled, realist leaders on the conservative side of our spectrum, such as Dick Lugar, have no place in American politics, to whom will Republican foreign-policy professionals be able to turn to muster congressional backing for viable policies abroad?