WASHINGTON — Nebraska's Ben Nelson and Chuck Hagel don't often see eye to eye, but both men warn of a strong antipathy within the Republican Party toward any who stray from the party line and work with Democrats.
“That's where we are today in the Republican Party, this streak of intolerance that I've never seen before,” said Hagel, who served two terms in the U.S. Senate. “It's dangerous because it paralyzes our country at a very dangerous time in the world.”
Iowa Republican and Senate stalwart Chuck Grassley disagrees with the notion that the rise of partisans seeking ideological purity is a negative. Yet he mourned the latest victim of anti-compromise conservatism, Indiana's Sen. Dick Lugar, who lost in the GOP primary last week after representing the state for 35 years. Lugar was attacked, in part, for his work with Democrats.
Grassley described Lugar as a fan of free markets and a social conservative.
“He was almost everything that you'd think of a Republican being,” said Grassley, who joined Lugar in the Senate in 1981.
Sen. Nelson said his decision to retire has more to do with a desire to work on his “bucket list” than the current political climate. Still, he didn't mince words about his belief that a Tea Party agenda is interfering with Washington's ability to tackle problems.
Nelson has infuriated members of his own party over the years by voting and working with Republicans. For example, he was part of the bipartisan Gang of 14 that formed in response to a showdown over President George W. Bush's blocked judicial nominations.
“If your primary voters look at that as betrayal rather than statesmanship, then you can be sure that people on that side of the aisle are not going to be looking for somebody on the other side to work with,” Nelson said.
That someone like Lugar could lose a primary might come as a shock, but it follows the similar defeat of Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, in the previous election cycle.
Nate Silver of the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight political blog analyzed the situation by dividing the 55 GOP senators who served in the 109th Congress, which ran from 2005 to 2007, into moderates and conservatives based on their voting records.
Of the 27 senators he listed as moderates, at most six will return to Congress in 2013. Only 11 of the 28 conservatives have been kicked out of office or said they are retiring.
It's a trend that could lead to even more entrenched partisan fighting in a body once viewed as a bastion of statesmanship. Centrists from both parties known for working across the aisle have cited the toxic atmosphere as a reason for fleeing. To cite just two recent examples: Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana already left and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is retiring after this year.
Hagel said his own decision not to seek a third term, in 2008, was influenced at least some by the “intimidation, the intolerance, the threats” directed at him over his breaks with fellow Republicans.
“I was so out of step with my own party — I don't even know what my own party is anymore,” Hagel said. “I don't think I changed. I'm an Eisenhower Republican. If Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater, if they were here today, they wouldn't even recognize this party.”
Hagel is now chairman of the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based international affairs think tank. During his time in office, Hagel rankled many in his own party by strongly criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War.
“I had people come in and threaten me that they were going to run ads against me and they'd never vote for me again, but you can't be intimidated by that,” Hagel said.
Hagel was viewed as a maverick for his talk on the war and for his work with Democrats on certain specific issues such as immigration.
Lugar also worked with Democrats, particularly on foreign policy matters such as nuclear nonproliferation. That resulted in critics painting him during the primary as President Barack Obama's favorite Republican senator.
In the past, a close relationship with the president — even one from the other party — would have been seen as a boon because it positioned that official to help his home state, Hagel said. But now officials are penalized by primary voters for working with the other side.
Hagel's work with Obama on foreign policy matters got him in trouble with his party, particularly the decision to travel with then-Sen. Obama to Afghanistan and Iraq in July 2008. That trip was seen by some as a tacit endorsement of Obama's presidential campaign, but Hagel said Obama had simply asked him for help in understanding the situation on the ground there.
Hagel also pointed to his role as co-chairman of Obama's presidential intelligence advisory board, which he views as not political.
“I thought the role of an elected official was to not only be a responsible and accountable steward of the government but to find solutions to problems and work with other people and try to influence outcomes,” Hagel said.
It is important to note that, in Lugar's case, he had problems that stretched beyond ideology.
Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said that he spent too little time in Indiana and that his focus on foreign policy matters went over poorly in a time of intense domestic concerns. Lugar also admitted that he no longer had a home in Indiana.
Grassley, ever the elder statesman, downplayed any threat to government's ability to function and said democracy is stronger when more people get involved in the political process.
“From time to time you find polarization, but we tend to do a pretty good job over a longer period of time ... of working through these extremes,” he said.
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