Puzzled in Indiana

Campaign 2010

If Reggie Miller wanted to stage a comeback with the Indiana Pacers, would he be welcomed home? Of course.

So why haven't young conservatives welcomed Dan Coats' bid for his old Senate seat in Indiana?

Some conservatives have joined national Democrats in beating up Coats for the crime of lobbying. Or for being ambassador to Germany. Or for thinking about retirement in North Carolina.

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It is a puzzle.

Coats, after all, was one of the most effective limited government conservatives in the House of Representatives when he served northeastern Indiana in the 1980s and 1990s and in the Senate from 1989 to 1999. He was also ambassador to Germany under President Bush.

Without bragging about it, he was an architect of what came to be called compassionate conservatism. He believed that conservatives could match big government social welfare with private sector alternatives. One key option was to let taxpayers send a portion of their tax bills, through credits, to charities helping those in need.

That theme of compassionate conservatism became a key to victories for George W. Bush. It was tarnished when Republicans in Congress, not including Coats, forgot the private sector emphasis in favor of government spending.

Yet Coats, Bush, and others made progress just in the growing recognition, even among liberals, that community-based ministries and churches are often more effective in fighting poverty than massive government programs.

Coats also has been a role model and a mentor for countless other conservative leaders, such as U.S. Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, and Jay Hein of the Sagamore Institute.

Coats is modest. He doesn't brag about himself very well. Yet he wore well with Indiana voters, with five House campaigns and two Senate victories.

Clearly he scared the Democrats in Indiana. Once he jumped in the race early this year, they came up with all kinds of charges. He wanted to live in North Carolina. He lobbied for dictator Hugo Chavez. Incumbent Democrat Evan Bayh realized he would not have an easy time against Coats and pulled out of the race. He was not worried about the other Republicans who were already in the race, including former U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, and businessmen Richard Behney and Don Bates Jr.

The puzzle is why some young conservatives cannot see through the Democratic Party rhetoric about Coats. Shouldn't conservatives read history? Are they so jaded to think that Coats picked up radioactive contamination just serving in the political mix in the Clinton era?

One explanation is that some activists want to throw out everyone and start over. That doesn't speak well for their capacity for discernment, which is important for a U.S. senator.

Coats may not have a Twitter following. But conservatives of all people should know better than to dismiss a senatorial candidate just for having a longer serious track record of political service.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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