Lugar's Fatal Case of Entitlement Syndrome

Lugar's Fatal Case of Entitlement Syndrome

By Reed Galen - May 16, 2012

The defeated Dick Lugar, in an impassioned and striking condemnation of the continuing polarization of American politics, blamed the Tea Party and his Republican primary opponent for demanding he submit to a "purification" exercise. Indeed, while the good Indiana senator admits he knew there would be “political headwinds” while facing re-election, he determined that his long years of service -- and the many policy challenges yet to be overcome -- were reason enough to step back into the arena.

For that, we should applaud Lugar. We should also thank him for his nearly four decades of service in the United States Senate. But Lugar did not lose because the Tea Party targeted him. He lost because he was no longer representing the people of Indiana. In theory and practice he has truly become a United States senator.

He lost because the driver’s license in his wallet shows the address of a home he sold 37 years ago -- before I was born. He lost because Hoosiers didn’t know enough about him to appreciate the long years of solid service he’s provided to them and the country. He lost because he believed, like so many life-long politicians do, that he was somehow entitled to re-election.

There are other examples of Incumbent Entitlement Syndrome (IES). Mike Castle would have been a senator from Delaware had he not conveyed a conviction that he was somehow owed the Republican nomination in 2010. Castle’s sense of entitlement resulted in the nomination of the unelectable Christine O’Donnell -- and one less GOP seat in the upper house.

Democrats are not immune from the syndrome either. Martha Coakley would have replaced Edward Kennedy in the Senate had she not concluded that shaking hands with voters outside Fenway Park was somehow beneath her.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter was so incensed at the very idea of a primary challenge from a more conservative Republican, then-Rep. Pat Toomey, that he switched parties, becoming the most junior member of the Democratic caucus -- and then lost in a 2010 (Democratic) primary anyway.

Orrin Hatch, like his former Utah counterpart Bob Bennett, now faces a June primary to keep his Senate seat for a seventh term. While he may succeed in his primary bid and likely general election run, it was not without, as one news report stated, having to endure the “indignity of calling individual delegates” to the Utah Republican Party’s nominating convention. That’s actually a classic description of one of the chief symptoms of IES: believing it’s beneath you to actually ask voters for their support.

Another symptom is experiencing feelings of immortality -- and an accompanying aversion to retirement. The Tea Party, Americans for Prosperity, and the other types of outside groups that contributed to Dick Lugar’s loss did nothing more than take advantage of an opportunity: An opportunity that Lugar, who is 80 years old, himself provided them.

Today, four members of the Senate are in their eigthies; 22 of them are in their seventies and 37 of them are in their sixties; 63 percent of those in the chamber are old enough to remember Elvis Presley appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” One is tempted to ask the question why they’re all still there. Most octogenarians want to drink a glass of iced tea or spend time with their grandkids (or great-grandkids) rather than sit through yet another tedious committee hearing.

I can understand the mind-set. A 30-something chief of staff or 40-something political consultant trying to tell an 80-year-old senator what to do would be like me trying to give my 86-year-old grandmother life advice. She’ll listen politely, then pat me on the hand and tell me she knows better than I do what’s good for her.

Dick Lugar didn’t lose because of the Tea Party. The Tea Party backed a candidate that could win because Lugar opened the door and invited them in. And the rising tide of polarization in Washington notwithstanding, his loss should give pause to political lifers. Just because you think you’re doing a great job doesn’t mean anyone at home even knows who you are. 

Reed Galen is a political strategist in California. He was John McCain's deputy campaign manager until July 2007.

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