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WASHINGTON — Can a Republican primary in Indiana have even the remotest connection to a presidential election in France? Richard Mourdock, the tea party giant-killer who defeated Sen. Richard Lugar on Tuesday, clearly thinks so.

“Just yesterday, France elected a socialist,” Mourdock declared in his victory speech. “There are those I’m sure in the administration and in the left side of the Democratic Party that were cheering for that. But we’re not going to stand for that in Indiana because the supporters of Barack Obama are not going to win!”

Don’t scoff. There is a point behind what Mourdock said. It’s just not the point he had in mind.

Mourdock’s success is decisive proof, if any more was needed, that the Republican Party has lurched far to the right of where it once was. Lugar was regularly described in the course of his re-election campaign as a “moderate.” But he is not a moderate, and never has been. He is a conservative who happens to be civil. Lugar earned a lifetime rating of 77 percent from the American Conservative Union. If being more than three-quarters to the right puts you in the “middle” of the political spectrum, it’s a very skewed measure.

Being a good tea party Republican, Mourdock is all about slashing government spending without regard to the impact of the cuts on the economy or on those who need government help. He cast his campaign as a battle against “the nightmare of ever-growing government” that would turn the United States into a “Western European-style nation.”

This gets us to the irony: Right now, it’s conservatives who want to follow the Western European path of austerity that voters in France and Greece rejected last weekend. The Obama administration, by contrast, has chosen a distinctly American path that kept austerity at bay. As a result, the American economy has climbed out of the Great Recession more quickly than most of Europe. Had Obama accepted the right wing’s assertions that cutting government is the one and only route to prosperity, we would have gone the way of Britain, which is slipping toward recession again.

In fact, the “socialist” Obama has presided over an economy in which private employment has risen by 4.2 million jobs during the recovery even as governments at all levels have cut public payrolls by some 600,000 since the beginning of 2009. If shrinking government is the political right’s goal, this puts Obama to the right of both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The United States should have been even more aggressive in pump priming the economy — and Obama would have been if conservatives and some moderates had not been so resistant.

What European voters are demanding, in other words, is a more moderate, American-style course. Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister and the leader of its Labour Party, nicely summarized the center-left’s middle-of-the-road approach. “You can’t have economic growth unless you also have stability,” he said, “but neither can you have stability without growth.”

France’s Francois Hollande may carry a Socialist label, but he, too, favors a balanced policy that would use public spending primarily to induce more private sector growth. Matt Browne, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is right to describe Hollande’s economic views as “pragmatic” and his proposals as embodying “a realistic European agenda.”

On the other hand, the Mourdock Republicans — and they now very much include Mitt Romney, the party’s presumptive nominee, in their ranks — would have the United States embrace an even more radical program of government cutbacks at the very moment when Europe’s voters are telling us that this simply doesn’t work.

In the more reasonable Washington to which Lugar arrived in 1977, Republicans accepted the need to boost the economy during a time of recession. They didn’t allow routine debt-ceiling votes to become threats to the nation’s full faith and credit. They didn’t think cutting government was a politician’s lone task. And, only because the GOP trash-talks Europe so much these days, let’s note that the older Republican Party didn’t believe that right-wing European emigre economic thinkers such as F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises had all the answers.

Obama’s thoroughly moderate economic policies are an excellent example of a practical American exceptionalism. Europeans are moving toward the center-left not because they are doctrinaire but precisely because they are sick of the rigid approaches the advocates of austerity have imposed upon them. Why would we now want to imitate Europe’s failures?

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com.

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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