You have to wonder what Dick Lugar is thinking these days. Here he is, the longest-serving Member of Congress in Indiana history, the most senior Republican in the U.S. Senate. Why, he's been in Washington, D.C. since 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. Frampton Comes Alive was a chart sensation. Remember that crazy sounding, talking guitar?
St. Richard, as I like to call him, is going to be 80 years old this April, just a month before Indiana's Republican primary. In years past, this primary amounted to little more than a gesture, the equivalent of a doorman at the Columbia Club clearing the way, with a hearty, "Welcome home, sir!"
This year is different. State Treasurer Richard Mourdock has decided the time has come to unseat St. Richard. Mourdock is a dour looking fellow who, by his own admission, is charismatically challenged. But this hasn't deterred him from going after Indiana's biggest political game. Rather than allow Lugar a six-year swan song, Mourdock is nipping at Lugar's well-shod heels.
Once, not so long ago, a challenge like this would have been unthinkable. Indiana has traditionally been a state where genuine differences between Republicans and Democrats have been so slim that, when it comes to prestige offices, one party usually defers to the other if there's a candidate who appears to have even a scintilla of strength.
The party bosses, who like us to think they're involved in a competitive enterprise, will tell you this has to do with money. They say it's a waste of resources to spend funds on campaigns that are bound to lose. In any place other than Indiana, this is what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the Hoosier state, it means that our politics disconcertingly resemble the Soviet-era politburo.
Dick Lugar took to this kind of politics like bread crumbs on a tenderloin. From the days when he was the beloved mayor of Indianapolis, the man who gave us Unigov — a plan to broaden the city's tax base while, at the same time, creating a Republican political machine — through the George Bush, Jr. years, when he voted with that Republican president more than any other senator, Lugar has been the consummate party animal.
He has even managed to win over most of the state's Democrats. They like his self-deprecating erudition, the common-sense touch he brings to such worldly issues as nuclear nonproliferation. This is what makes him a kind of saint — and, at any other time, his Senate seat a virtual sinecure.
But these, as the Chinese proverb puts it, are interesting times. This is especially true when it comes to Lugar's Republican party. Today's version of Republicanism doesn't remotely resemble the party Lugar exemplified back in the 1970s. When Lugar entered the Senate, he joined such Republican colleagues as Jacob Javits, Edward Brooke, Charles Percy and Mark Hatfield — all of whom could pass as liberal Democrats by today's right-wing standards.
It's hard to say what today's Republicans stand for. Driven by the anger of the Tea Party, a semi-grassroots insurgency seemingly driven as much by an inability to reconcile itself to the presence of an African-American president as by his policies, a large number of which have been lifted from previous Republican playbooks, the GOP has devolved into a party of chronic complaint.
That's where Richard Mourdock comes in. Mourdock has based his entire reason for being on the notion that Dick Lugar and Barack Obama are locked in a liberal embrace. On his website, Mourdock cites what he calls "The Obama Agenda" as a way of contrasting himself with Lugar, saying: "Obama's agenda of runaway federal spending and expanded government control over nearly every aspect of the economy is contrary to the tradition of free enterprise and limited government that makes America great."
Mourdock goes on to outline what he's against (abortion, supposedly liberal supreme court justices, illegal immigrants, saving the auto industry, TARP, the START Treaty, earmarks and Obamacare) and what he's for (guns and a balanced federal budget).
Poor St. Richard. To hear Mourdock tell it, our senior senator is now sleepwalking through an endless senior moment. Why, he doesn't even know where he lives! He sold the house on Highwoods Ct. that he lists as his residence in 1977. Dubious origins are apparently another thing Lugar and Obama have in common.
Lugar claims that Linley Pearson, Indiana's Republican attorney general back in the day, told him not to worry about the matter of where he actually lived. The current AG, another Republican, Greg Zoeller, agrees. Nothing to look at here, folks.
For a man knee-deep in the shambles his political party has become, this agreement across generations of Republican hackdom must be reassuring. This is finally the kind of loyalty one could always count on from local subordinates, the apparatchiks who, when called on, would carry water for their elders. It's just like old times.
When I was in sixth grade, I had a teacher, Mrs. Rider, who asked us: "What makes America different from all other countries?"
A bunch of preadolescent arms shot up, as several of us dared to guess the answer. As I remember it, most of these guesses were inspired by the lines of patriotic songs and pledges, like "liberty and justice for all," and "home of the brave."
Then Mrs. Rider called on Bob Freck. Bob was sitting toward the back of the class. He was a friendly, slightly heavyset kid. Like many of us, his complexion was beginning to play rude tricks on an otherwise thoughtful countenance.
"America has a middle class?"
Although delivered with a touch of uncertainty, this was the answer Mrs. Rider was looking for. After congratulating Bob for his insight, she began a discussion of American social mobility. "How many of your parents have been to college?" she asked.
Fewer than half the kids in the room raised their hands.
Mrs. Rider nodded. She told us that what made America different was that, thanks to our middle class, most of us would go to college, whether our parents had been there or not. Our middle class was like a launching pad that would enable us to surpass our parents. It made progress possible.
I know I've told this story before, but it seems particularly apt now. Class, a word many Americans shy away from, is suddenly in the national conversation with a frequency and intensity that feels new.
The Occupy movement has something to do with this. Many people criticized Occupiers for their lack of an agenda, the bullet points constituting a recipe for social reform. But by drawing a blunt distinction between American society's 1 percent and everybody else, the movement succeeded in shining a light on a phenomenon most people knew was affecting them, even if they weren't sure how to describe it.
Americans have an underdeveloped vocabulary when it comes to talking about class. One reason for this is the way we tend to teach our country's history. Most of us are taught that history is a story and, in America's case, it's a story about progress. When things change, it's usually because what came before is out-moded, or obsolete. Change, in other words, is usually for the better.
One of the things that supposedly changed in America, was the European class system. We left that in the Old Country, making America "the land of opportunity." You could come here with nothing and make something of yourself.
This didn't come naturally. At first, half this country's economy was based on slavery. The other half exploited child labor and demanded soul-crushing hours in often dangerous conditions for scant pay. Battles were fought to create the kind of working conditions that eventually made America's middle class possible. Getting rid of slavery required a civil war.
These experiences served to confirm the idea that America was a place where class distinctions could be overcome. That's not to say we didn't have problems that needed solving, but we tended to say those problems were due to something besides class — racism, say, or sexism, poor parenting or intoxication. Americans have even blamed themselves for misfortune before entertaining the idea that the game is rigged against them because the game itself is rigged.
Yet that is what class is all about. It's a game where the same people win over and over again, while everybody else muddles through.
But something's happened in America. Household income declined to its lowest level in more than a decade in 2010. The Corporation for Enterprise Development estimates that 43 percent of Americans haven't got enough money to live for three months if they lose their jobs. More of us — 46 million — are living in poverty than ever before. Fifty million have no health insurance; 50 million more are underinsured. Total student loan debt is now over $1 trillion.
This student loan stat is telling. As Mrs. Rider assured my sixth grade class, access to a college education would all but guarantee that boys and girls alike could look forward to not only being part of the middle class, but having lives that would build on the hard work of our parents.
In those days, it hardly mattered what you majored in. English or economics, the degree itself was a kind of ticket that simultaneously defied class distinctions and reinforced them. This was a golden age for the Liberal Arts.
Well, a college degree ain't what it used to be. A BA, in most cases, has about the same cache as a high school diploma in Mrs. Rider's day. Graduate school is almost mandatory, if for no other reason, to put off paying student loans that have outstripped many graduates' earning potential. Now, instead of education, people talk increasingly about training.
Training isn't a very aspirational word. It doesn't suggest possibilities, so much as limitations, albeit with a certain amount of security. It's the kind of thing you talk about, when you'd rather not talk about class.