Lugar defeat shows the Tea Party is alive and well

 
US Senator Richard Lugar outside a polling station in Greenwood, Indiana 8 May 2012 Senator Richard Lugar was known for his ability to reach compromises and had specialised in national security issues

When Ronald Reagan won the White House for the Republicans, the conservative columnist George Will joked that Barry Goldwater had won the 1964 election after all - it had taken 16 years to count the votes.

You might say today that the firebrand conservative Barry "extremism-in-the-defence-of-liberty-is-no-vice" Goldwater has now won his campaign to purge his party of moderates, it has just taken him 48 years longer than he had hoped.

It is commonplace around Washington to hear people - mainly Democrats, but not exclusively - bemoan the passing of bipartisan politicians of days gone by.

They are thinking of people like Senator Richard Lugar who lost his primary election against a Tea Party candidate, and so lost the seat he had held for 38 years.

He was a gentleman from another era: careful, considered, rather old-fashioned, happy to behave like an elder statesman, someone who deliberately sought agreement rather than tried to exaggerate differences.

Reaching across the aisle

You can see the scale of the problem he had made for himself when you consider the two politicians who first rushed to praise him.

There was Democratic Senator John Kerry, who called his deselection a "tragedy".

He went on: "This is a tough period in American politics, but I'd like to think that we'll again see a United States Senate where Dick Lugar's brand of thoughtful, mature, and bipartisan work is respected and rewarded.

"That kind of seriousness of purpose should never go out of fashion."

Then President Barack Obama, the man many Tea Party supporters believe is putting America in mortal danger, called him a friend and said: "I found during my time in the Senate that he was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done.

"My administration's efforts to secure the world's most dangerous weapons has been based on the work that Senator Lugar began, as well as the bipartisan co-operation we forged during my first overseas trip as Senator to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan."

Mr Lugar would delight in such praise. That is how he damned himself.

Indeed, one of his opponent's campaigning lines was that Mr Lugar had been called President Obama's favourite Republican. He promised he would never earn that soubriquet.

The new masters

It is why talk of the Tea Party waning is nonsense. It may not have the presidential candidate it wants, but only because there was no such individual.

Broadly speaking, it now has the policies it wants, the Republican Party it wants and the adversarial style of politics it wants.

Politico quotes one Tea Party leader, Greg Fettig: "The message to the establishment is, 'You're our servants. We're the masters. Do what you're supposed to do, adhere to the constitution, or we'll fire you.'"

Death by deselection was a familiar fate to Labour politicians in the 1970s, at the hands of the left.

Here it is the right who are using internal party democracy to purify their party.

There are many reasons why the conservatives have seized control of the Republican Party.

But at least part of the answer is a simple historical trend. The US party system has taken an immense amount of time to escape the distorting legacy of civil war and segregation.

The long process of becoming normal parties of left and right began in the 1900s and is not quite complete more than a century later. The trouble is that the American system does not function without good will and agreement.

If you think you have seen gridlock, just wait and watch Goldwater's final victory.

 
Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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