17 February 2010

Bayh: 2 days on

As the news of Evan Bayh's abrupt decision to retire from politics has sunk in, my assessment of Monday -- while accurate in conveying the sense of shock felt among politicos -- might have been slightly off-base.

Worth a read, although I'm not sure I agree with everything he wrote: Ross Douthat -- who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best columnists in America -- unloaded on what he believed was Bayh's wishy-washy record. (For kicks, he blasted Arlen Specter here.)

The more I read reaction to Bayh's speech and study his career, the more I'm inclined to believe him that the Senate is no longer the best way to effectuate meaningful change. I'm almost certain Bayh -- who exceeded 60% of the vote in three consecutive statewide elections and had never lost a statewide election in five tries -- would have beaten back his Republican challenger, former Sen. Dan Coats, fairly easily.

But what does Bayh's retirement say about the toxic partisanship that has overtaken Washington?

For better or for worse, two of the Senate's most reliable moderates -- Bayh and Arlen Specter -- likely will be gone at this time next year. John McCain is facing an annoying primary challenge from the right (more -- much more -- on that in a future post). In 2012, two more moderates -- Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman -- will face very tough roads to re-election. And this follows the departures of Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and Ohio's Mike DeWine in the 2006 midterms. Even the late Ted Kennedy -- a doctrinaire liberal in every sense of the term -- was widely regarded as one of the Senate's great pragmatic deal-cutters. This is quite a list, and all could be gone in two years.

I'm no big fan of the unprincipled Specter (and gleefully hope he is crushed by Pat Toomey in the general election), nor did I care for the aloof Chafee nor the politics of the ultra-liberal Kennedy. But the movement away from the center, especially in the Senate, is striking. Examining the last four years, the Senate has accomplished less, become more divided along partisan lines, and shed moderate after moderate. Of course, hardcore conservatives (Limbaugh; Ingraham) and liberals (Schultz; Olbermann) will no doubt say "good riddance" to the likes of Chafee and DeWine, or Lieberman and Bayh. But the center is vital to accomplishing anything of import -- Reagan needed the southern "Reagan Democrats" in an era where his party never controlled Congress; Clinton needed the support of the GOP in passing NAFTA and welfare reform.

This move away from the center -- by both parties -- started in earnest with President Clinton's impeachment trial. After the GOP's grandstanding against Clinton's infidelities, liberals drew the long knives for President Bush, and reflexively opposed most of his entire agenda for eight years, making vicious, unbecoming attacks on Bush's character the centerpiece of their opposition. After Obama's election, the so-called opinion leaders on the right have thrown their disciples into a full-fledged panic attack against the new administration, taking legitimate concerns about the president's agenda and turning them into a revolt.

This is troublesome. The political climate in Washington is toxic, and both sides are equally to blame (including the president, might I add -- who for all of the hopenchange rhetoric has been almost completely unwilling to compromise on anything of substance, just as we predicted). Regardless of whether partisans might dislike the Bayhs and DeWines of the world, history demonstrates that we need them. Their parties need them. Where would the Democrats be without the Blue Dogs?

Finally, what does Bayh's retirement say about the president? He campaigned as a post-partisan healer, promising to change the ways of Washington and to be more inclusive. Only a reflexive partisan kool-aid drinker like James Carville can look at this man's first year in office and come to the conclusion that he has succeeded. If anything, Obama has made things worse, as he has engaged in the same tactics the Bush administration used -- demonization of political opponents, an unwillingness to compromise, etc. This supposedly transformative administration has been as fiercely partisan as any in recent memory. Under Obama's watch, the climate in Washington has gotten worse, not better.

So Bayh's retirement -- even though it will flip a blue seat to red -- is a sad example of the sorry state of Washington. It's arguable that this may well be the legacy of Barack Obama.

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