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Evan Bayh: An ordinary politician

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My impression of Evan Bayh was that he was a major deficit hypocrite. Despite spending all his time talking about the need to reduce spending, he'd voted for all the major spending increases in recent years. When I looked into it, that wasn't true: He voted against the Bush tax cuts, and against the Medicare prescription drug benefit. But he voted for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, opposed sensible tax increases like President Obama's proposed cap on itemized deductions, and sponsored legislation to spend more than $440 billion exempting rich people's estates from taxation.

So: Evan Bayh's not a major deficit hypocrite. He's a minor deficit hypocrite. But a deficit hypocrite all the same. In his exit speech, he describes himself as "a lonely voice for balancing the budget and restraining spending." Of course, there's no such thing in Washington as a "lonely voice" for a balanced budget. There is a cacophony of such voices, and a dearth of such votes. But votes are the only things able to do the job. If voices balanced the budget, treasury bonds would never rise.

Accusing a politician of deficit hypocrisy isn't a particularly serious slur. Pretty much every politician is guilty of it. It's a bit like trumpeting the fact that some politician or another wears a suit. But if Bayh's sins are ordinary, so too was his career. Which is why I was surprised to see my colleague Jonathan Capehart term this a "brain drain." I've talked to Bayh before, and like Jonathan Chait, found him special only in his ability to formulate platitudes on the fly. The guy missed out on a terrific career as a fortune cookie author ("Your country will be assured of greatness! Your lucky deficit number is zero!"), but the sciences will not weep for their loss.

Take Bayh's dramatic exit. "I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should," he says. "There is too much partisanship and not enough progress -- too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving." All true enough. You'd expect that he'd then diagnose the problem and explain how he'll help fix it. But nope. Instead, he simply laments it and then says he'd like a job "helping grow a business, helping guide an institution of higher learning or helping run a worthy charitable endeavor."

Respectable goals all, but small ball for a senator who has concluded that the American legislative system is so crippled that he can no longer bear to participate in it. Even in this, his most dramatic hour, Bayh was unable to be more than a perfectly typical politician, seeking praise for raising his voice while doing nothing to solve the problem.

Update: I see James Fallows was thinking along similar lines. Also, Evan Bayh will not rule out becoming a lobbyist.

Correction: The original version of this post said that Bayh voted for the first round of Bush tax cuts. That was incorrect, and the text has been updated to reflect it.

Photo credit: AJ Mast/AP

By Ezra Klein  |  February 16, 2010; 3:50 PM ET
 
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Comments

Do you think Bayh could challenge Obama in 2012?

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 16, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

You should point out the distinction between singular budget busting items like war in Iraq, vs. long-structural deficit spending like increasing entitlements, especially reckless spending that relies on gimmicks to make them appear deficit neutral.

For instance passing a new healthcare entitlement that claims to be deficit neutral when in fact it will dramatically de-couple demand for medical services from the real world cost of those services.

I can forgive spending on a short-term war to achieve certain foreign policy goals; but the reckless bankrupting of the USA could permanently damage the cause of human freedom in the world.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 16, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

To be fair, he also voted against the first Bush tax cuts.
And the only people who would actually think he'd challenge Obama are Republicans. Really, there is no basis for that.

Posted by: Theston | February 16, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Would your annual household budget accept a lease of a Mercedez convertible more favorably than a full purchase of a Subarau stationwagon?

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 16, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

I love it!

It shows what you Democrats think about members of your own party.

Bayh's position=Congress is not working, so I'll become a lobbyist.....

Awesome!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 16, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

["Do you think Bayh could challenge Obama in 2012?"]

As a democrat or a republican? As a democrat, he *could* wage a primary run, sure. And he'd go down to a humiliating defeat, because his record speaks for itself. As a republican, he'd just be one more big-business-shill trying to be heard in a sea of candidates, and probably wouldn't even get a glance, let alone the nod.

Posted by: edta | February 16, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Come on Chuck Lane, take the bait.

Posted by: oldabandonedbeachhouse | February 16, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

You say "ordinary", I say mediocre.

Can anyone name anything of significance that Bayh accomplished during his tenure?

Posted by: NotFooledTX | February 16, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

I just hope he stays the hell away from my institution of higher learning.

Mebbe University of Phoenix is looking for someone.

Posted by: pj_camp | February 16, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

@ NotFooledTX - just as much as the big dummy in the White House.

I'm not sure what all the Democrat pundits think they are doing by piling on Bayh. I know you're mad because your entire agenda has been decimated by Saracuda, a Facebook page, and the unruly "mob". But you're attempts to distance yourself from Bayh's "rat fleeing a sinking ship" only goes to demonstrate more and more to the American people that there is no room for any dissent with your leftist policies and that you will eat your own if they dare suggest otherwise.

Not that I'm complaining. 2009 started as perhaps the worst year politically and yet in the last 4 months I have enjoyed nothing more than watching the vapid, empty suit Obama being displayed for what he is. A sound bite, signifying nothing.

Change I can believe in!

Posted by: NelsonMuntz | February 16, 2010 9:59 PM | Report abuse

""2009 started as perhaps the worst year politically""

Worse than a misguided invasion of Iraq, worse than a 2008 economic meltdown, and worse than the revelations that our nation endorsed and made gratuitous use of torture? 2009 was worse than that because a Democrat became president? You, my friend, are a morally screwed up human being.

Posted by: tyromania | February 16, 2010 10:20 PM | Report abuse

@ tyromania

Ah my ignorant friend, perhaps you should study the word politics - the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy. Note that it does not concern effects of policy, but rather the process. So while you may choose to judge my morality, please do so on point.

For me to state that 2009 was the worst year for me politically is an honest appraisal that my interests were soundly defeated in the election, that the media had coronated Obama without much investigation into his background or legislative capabilities, and that there seemed to be an opportunity for Democrat control of government for a number of years. So yes politically it was a very bad year for conservatives and it was portrayed that way in numerous liberal publications as a sign of a "fundamental shift".

For you to take some kind of cheap shot comment at me is only indicative of your inability to discuss political opinions rationally without moral invectives. It shows a crass overestimation of yourself and demonstrates the type self righteous moral indignation that Americans are all to comfortable with.

Posted by: NelsonMuntz | February 17, 2010 12:19 AM | Report abuse

"One of our PAA Democrats" forevermore. (I believe this reference was made by Jack Livingston)

Posted by: 4jkb4ia | February 17, 2010 12:20 AM | Report abuse

A life long, centrist Democrat here and not even from Indiana.

Once again (actually, per usual) Mr. Klein shows a confusion berween alleged "economics" and politics. His, I assume he would call it "expertise" appears to be in the rarified area of potentials, un-reality, false figures and interest rates called government economics. In the private sector, we call it fraud!

Mr. Bayh, on the other hand, is involved with attempting to make sense out of the foolishness of economists, passing laws that use their "expertise" in an attempt to develop some rationality in government funding and making the system work for his constituents. That's called politics and governing. Something Mr. Klein, clearly, has a minimal understanding of. But, then, spectators in the cheap seats, as opposed to those in the arena, rarely do.

A hungry man, Mr. Klein, is very happy with half a loaf. Writers' who care little for facts and only seek to stir the pot are not. It's, to quote one of their heroines, "let them eat cake" for them.

Mr. Bayh deals in the art of the possible and puts his reputation on the line to try to accomplish something every day. Mr. Klein throws spit balls from the back row.

The atmosphere inside the beltway (the only place where Mr. Klein is credited with expertise) has become poisoned by those only fascinated with power and feathering their own nest. That includes pseudo-politicians (some even elected), "economists" and many reporters. Mr. Bayh is tired of beating his head against a wall errected by greedy phonies. Some Democrats (such as our Senator from Nebraska) and, it would appear, the entire Republican Senate contingent.

He's disgusted and going home where he can do some good. Can't blame him. If he becomes a lobbyist, good luck to him. But, he needs to learn that, when spending money, unlike the relatively honest ladies on the street corner, their cousins on the Hill may not deliver as promised.

Posted by: JPF917 | February 17, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

" All true enough. You'd expect that he'd then diagnose the problem and explain how he'll help fix it. But nope. Instead, he simply laments it and then says he'd like a job "helping grow a business, helping guide an institution of higher learning or helping run a worthy charitable endeavor."

Respectable goals all, but small ball for a senator who has concluded that the American legislative system is so crippled that he can no longer bear to participate in it. Even in this, his most dramatic hour, Bayh was unable to be more than a perfectly typical politician, seeking praise for raising his voice while doing nothing to solve the problem."

bayh seems like a "bob kerry-lite"

"bob kerrey former (D) senator from nebraska who retired from the senate and is now president at the New School in NYC"

Posted by: jamesoneill | February 17, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I'm announcing my retirement to contribute to humanity as a college president, corporate head or in the grand tradition of political retirees, a lobbyist serving the public by wining and dining my former colleagues to influence the votes I once participated in.

Let's give the proper credit to the inventor of this retirement scheme, Sarah Palin, whose farewell speech should serve as a model for all those who can't just blame their decision on family obligations. Please see me as your whistle blower, who had the guts to sacrifice a career in public service that I was unable to continue due to the infamy of (fill in the blank). In my new role as a citizen of the world, I will now be able to fulfill our destiny, as you support me and thereby you for the benefit of all mankind. For a list of services and fees, please contact ...

Posted by: Koko3 | February 17, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for this comment, Mr. Klein. I have always felt that Mr. Bayh's claim to fame was his father, not his own accomplishments. I admired his father; I do not admire him. The good news is that now that he is gone, we will not have to absorb the unearned attention he tends to attract as if he were going to do something meaningful, or as if he supported the Obama administration's agenda.

It would be nice if Indiana could elect someone with a little courage, clarity, and authenticity...and with fewer overt signs of conflict of interest issues. At this point party affiliation is less compelling to me than character. I think he never really acknowledged the motive of money but it seems to be part of the puzzle to me.

Posted by: pbkritek | February 17, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

By definition Klein is wrong in his conclusion that Bayh is "An ordinary politician". an ordinary politician would either never sy what Bayh said in the first place or be self centered enough to claim that he/she was so important they had to stay to try to improve the system. He had a very safe seat yet chose to act on his conclusions and as a result of his frustrations.

I am not a particular fan of Bayh, except for the fact that he always seemed a relative straight shooter and not the type of self congratulating blowhard that is dominant among both parties Senatorial represntatives. but lately relative to his party he had become a voice of fiscal sanity.

The liberals just don't wanrt to amit they they have once again misread the will of the peole and overreached.

Posted by: TuckerAndersen1 | February 17, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

"By definition Klein is wrong in his conclusion that Bayh is "An ordinary politician"."

You are correct. Calling Evan Bayh ordinary is a sharp insult to all truly ordinary politicians.

"He had a very safe seat yet chose to act on his conclusions and as a result of his frustrations."

translation:

He concluded that his mediocrity would bring much greater financial reward on K Street.

Bayh has no ambition for higher office, only for a higher income, and he likely has that lucrative lobbying job already lined up.

Palin bailed for the money, Bayh is following suit. Neither will run for President, either would self-immolate in five minutes if they tried.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 18, 2010 3:35 AM | Report abuse

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