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Evan Bayh: The evidence for the defense

bayhdefense.JPGIt's no secret that I don't have a very high opinion of Evan Bayh. But it's only fair to present the evidence that he's not the poll-driven mediocrity I've presented him as. First, Jon Alter:

I'm not sure people realize just how much the failure of health care demoralized Evan Bayh. As I learned in reporting for my upcoming book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, out in May, White House aides David Axelrod and Jim Messina visited the Senate just before the August recess last year and left feeling much better after hearing from Bayh. He made them feel that the politics of getting reelected demanded passage of the bill, which at the time looked iffy. "We're all screwed if you don't get something real on health care," Bayh told them. This made Axelrod and Messina think that the moderates would be on board.

After the Massachusetts debacle, Bayh thought it was too late to get something real and that it was time to shift to other priorities. I think he figured he could beat Dan Coats in Indiana but it wasn't worth the effort. He and the Democrats were, in his mind, "all screwed."

Left unanswered is why Bayh didn't stand and fight, or use the drama of his retirement to push the health-care reform bill as a good bill that he will spend his final months working tirelessly to pass. Next up: The late timing of Bayh's retirement announcement seemed like it was designed to hurt the Democrats. But there's an argument that it was done to help them:

Republicans are livid about the timing of Sen. Evan Bayh’s (D-Ind.) retirement announcement.

They have at least four candidates in the upcoming primary while the Indiana Democratic Party will get to decide its nominee.

Indiana required nominating petitions to be filed by noon Tuesday. Bayh announced Monday he would not seek reelection, giving would-be candidates less than 24 hours to get on the ballot.[...]

Because no Democrat was able to gather the 4,500 nominating signatures — 500 from each congressional district — the party’s executive committee will meet in the next six weeks to decide on a nominee.

We report, you decide.

Photo credit: By A.J. Mast/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  February 17, 2010; 11:53 AM ET
 
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Comments

I think Bayh's problem is that he carved out a specific niche for himself that just didn't have a place in a Democratic Senate. His niche was always the centrist who comes to the table to cross party lines to join with the Republicans to end gridlock by coming up with a "compromise" (whether favorable to his side or not). When it came to health care reform, he just didn't have a role to play there. What could he do? The only role the "centrist" can play for someone in the majority party is to *obstruct* the legislation by joining with the Republicans to vote against it. So he's probably felt out of place for the last few years and just got tired of it because there was nothing he could really do or contribute in the role he had chosen for himself.

What Bayh needed was a Republican mirror image of himself who would have been willing to be "centrist peacemaker" by selling out the Republicans' unified opposition and crafting a compromise position with Bayh. Without that, and without a Republican Senate for him to play footsie with, the entire identity he had created for himself as a Senator was suddenly obsolete.

Posted by: constans | February 17, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Sorry to hear you are not a fan of Evan Bayh. Run for election yourself and then you can copy/paste others' work and insights into your blog.

Posted by: VAALEX | February 17, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Alter sounds like he's whitewashing Bayh's role in the Health Care debate a bit. He may not have been as prominent a voice as Lieberman, Nelson, Lincoln, et. al were in putting brakes on, but he was definitely one of them fretting about 'government involvement' and talking out both sides of his mouth. He was part of the problem, and making like he was a stalwart soldier in getting something passed, demoralized because nothing did, is rewriting his role in it.

And I think picking the nominee is still a dangerous double-edged sword, due to 1) lack of times to garner campaign funds due to the late start, and 2) possible backlash from Indiana dems over not having a real voice in the matter.

Posted by: kryptik1 | February 17, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

1) A reporter whitewashing a source for his book? There's something new.

2) I feel bad for the Senator's demoralization, but, as General Marshall noted, "Enlisted men may be entitled to morale problems, but officers are not."

Posted by: DeliciousPundit | February 17, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

What's that on top of his head?

Posted by: luko | February 17, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Alter's comments about Bayh are consistent with Bayh's actions during healthcare. They are in terms of post-Brown, where he was among the first wanting to bail out of healthcare. But his committment early on was extremely focused on doing the bidding of Big Health. If he was as strong of a proponent of healthcare as Alter would like us to believe, he could have used his "moderate Dem" cred to help move to process along earlier, and more strongly. Instead, he was one of the early Senators talking about *not* voting for cloture. We need to remember that he only did a 180 turn on that in less than 24 hours after Rachel and Greenwald tore him a massive new a-hole on the Maddow Show explicitly walking through his Family Connections to Wellpoint. The very next morning, Bayh indicated he would vote for cloture.

He's not exactly been supportive since other than to vote for the bill after Lieberman and Nelson pulled their hostage games, both of which pushed the bill closer towards one Bayh liked.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | February 17, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

I won't slam the guy for positions he's taken, since I mostly don't know them, and I won't slam him for his centrist fetishization because frankly I don't know Indiana well enough to know what kind of constraints he's working under.

But mark me disappointed that he isn't calling out the Republicans on their unprecedented obstruction.

And that he's not calling them out on being wrong about every major policy issue for the past 10 years.

I mean, let's talk deficits, since he wants that to be his issue. You want to get upset about budget deficits, it's very clear which President took deficit reduction seriously and which one didn't. And it's also very clear that the modern conservative movement is following some very insane budgetary policies--deficit financing massive tax cuts for top earners, wars, and unnecessarily expensive entitlement expansions? And then demanding cutbacks and the least stimulative kinds of tax cuts during a recession? Seriously?

I'm disappointed he didn't take advantage of the opportunity to make this point very strongly.

Posted by: theorajones1 | February 17, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Bayh is like a little kid taking his ball and going home. Wouldn't an adult try to reform an institution that he thinks is failing the US? Wouldn't that be his patriotic duty as a citizen legislator to work for positive change in the Senate?

Recall that he initially said that a PROCEDURAL VOTE (like to invoke cloture) and a vote on a substantive bill are basically the same thing. Later on he backed off this nonsensical stance but it set the tone for the other dems to demand 11th hour bribes to not JOIN THE REPIGLICANS and filibuster HCR. Where is the political courage in that craven stance? Where is he on eliminating or significantly modifying the filibuster rule, since that is the single biggest impediment to getting things done in the Senate. Where was his courageous and righteous indignation at the repiglicans, who are the ones making it impossible to legislate? Crickets...

It is my belief that he is one of the shadow conservadem senators that quietly supported the continued watering down of the HCR bill and tacitly supported Holy Joe and Big Ben, even though it already represented many substantive compromises with the "centrist" conservadem faction. I didn't hear him be an advocate for a public option, the single most popular idea to come out of HCR.

I didn't hear him make any full throated defense of Obama's handling of the underpants bomber, even though any neutral observer could see that the repiglicans were just trying to make political hay over THE SAME POLICY THAT REPIGLICANS FOLLOWED FOR 7 YEARS.

In fact, I am trying to think of any issue that Bayh has taken the lead on besides trying to eliminate the estate tax and make sure Paris Hilton gets to keep her billions. There may be an issue, but I can't think of it. In some ways, Richard Lugar, a republican, has provided more political support for Obama's counter terrorism and foreign policy initiatives than Bayh has.

I don't mourn the loss of his sanctimonious lecturing on the deficit, while he simultaneously supports tax cuts for millionaires.

Posted by: srw3 | February 17, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

That's the thing Ezra, you DON'T report, you opine.

Posted by: popopo | February 17, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

The most inexcusable statement, founded on an unchallenged Beltway assumption, is committed by both Alter and Bayh: "the failure of health care."

How a Senator can blame his quitting on the failure of a bill that hasn't failed yet is emblematic of how these politicians can't see two feet in front of them. How a good journalist like Alter can just let these assumptions go unnoticed is an example of why political news coverage in the country is bankrupt.

If health care does fail, it's because lawmakers like Bayh give up on it, only to be celebrated in the press who took it as a given.

Posted by: fbacon2 | February 17, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Constans and Toshiaki pretty well summed it up. it is hard to take Bayh seriously when he evinces no interest in improving the situation. He is just a guy who likes to strike poses but not do anything to make the positions they imply to happen. He is a fraud, in other words.

I think he got bored because in a world where the GOP is united in obstruction he is irrelevant. Ironically, the Dems' seeming inability to pass anything on health care, jobs, financial reform etc will cost them seats, making someone like him MORE relevant (in a closer Senate). Unless he really thinks the GOP is going to take back control of the Senate.

Posted by: Mimikatz | February 17, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

I think the Senate HCR bill is still going to pass subject to modifications done via reconciliation.

So I don't understand why Bayh felt the need to give up on it.

Posted by: rich_in_nj | February 17, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Defense is weak. Evan Bayh's "niche" was that he wasn't policy but rather politics-driven. He made that clear in his statement about his plan to form a Blue Dog coalition in the Senate. His concept of "negotiation" wasn't about improving policies but rather about getting something out of it that would help him in his state.

In other words, Bayh--and all those like him--are the reason that people think government is a racket, not focused on solving problems but focused on self-enrichment.

Posted by: slag | February 17, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Bayh was one of the road blocks in front of "something real" on health care.

So I guess it's impressive to see how flexible he is, because apparently he screwed himself.

Posted by: burndtdan | February 17, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

"But it's only fair to present the evidence that he's not the poll-driven mediocrity I've presented him as."
----------------------------------------------

A question I have to keep asking myself is whether it truly and necessarily is a bad thing for an elected representative to be "poll-driven." And I'm not at all sure I like the answer very much.

It seems to me that to answer that question in the affirmative, you have to start with the assumption that a politician has some higher obligation to party or ideology or personal beliefs than they do to the wishes and sensibilities of the people they are supposed to be representing. It also seems to me that the reason we have fixed terms for members of congress is to give voters a regular opportunity to bend their representatives to their will. Aren't polls just another mechanism for that?

Now of course one can argue that there are occasions where the most popular options are also the most self-serving and/or short-sighted and that it's incumbent on our elected representatives to follow their own principles in those cases, rather than the will of the people who elected them. But that's actually an indictment of the electorate so you want to watch your step there. I for one would hate to find myself arguing that politicians should be routinely defying the will of the people who elected them, even if that might result in their doing things that I would agree with personally.

If you carried that attitude to it's logical extreme, you could easily find yourself concluding -- oh, just to throw out a wildly improbable example -- that it's somehow OK to filibuster pretty much every piece of legislation that comes before the senate regardless of its merit.

Posted by: CalD | February 17, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

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