Bayh's Centrist Gambit
Evan Bayh's announcement this morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that he and 14 other Democratic senators had begun to meet weekly to discuss ways in which the moderate/centrist wing of the party could ensure its voice is better heard by the White House and Senate leadership is the latest example of the Indiana Democrat's increased willingness to critique -- and tweak -- the Obama administration.
"I can understand why there is a desire for unanimity," said Bayh in an interview with the Fix this afternoon. "But a certain amount of policy debate usually leads to better outcomes."
A quick examination of the early days of the Obama administration reveals that Bayh has backed up that rhetoric with action.
He was one of just three Senate Democrats who voted against the $410 billion omnibus spending bill and he urged President Obama to veto the bill in a high profile op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. (Obama did not.) Bayh also has expressed doubts about the amount of money dedicated to health care reform and climate change in the president's budget, calling for an emphasis on lowering costs rather than simply spending more.
Bayh's actions have caused some grumbling -- privately, of course -- among some in the White House who view his freelancing as less than helpful in seeking to push Obama's legislative agenda through Congress.
"One hundred percent agreement is an unrealistic standard," Bayh said of his critics, adding that anyone who marches lockstep with someone else "has abdicated either his brain or his backbone or both."
Bayh's middle of the road approach is in character for the Indiana Democrat who has built a political career on being a voice of moderation. But, Bayh's willingness to cross swords with the administration is notable since he was one of the two finalists to be Obama's vice presidential choice -- eventually losing out to his one-time colleague Joe Biden.
During the veepstakes, Bayh allies were quick to dispute the notion that he was a careful centrist -- noting that he had voted against the nomination of Samuel Alito and John Roberts for the Supreme Court and largely renounced his initial vocal support for the war in Iraq.
In truth, however, it's was always clear that Bayh felt more comfortable in the middle of the road than driving himself into any ideological ditch.
Neutral observers have offered up any number of reasons for Bayh's ramped-up critique of the Obama administration.
Sylvia Smith, the Washington editor of the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette, ascribes the change to the fact that Bayh will stand for reelection in 2010 in a state that, despite going for Obama in 2008, remains conservative-minded at its core.
"Bayh is up for re-election next year. After years of courting the liberal wing of his party, which plays an important role in presidential nominations, Bayh has some home-state image restoration to address."
Smith also sees evidence of Bayh's broader (read: national) ambitions in his attempt to emerge as the leading voice of Senate Democratic moderates. "If the economy doesn't improve and Obama's popularity tanks, Democrats may be in the market for a nominee whose fiscal conservatism is well established," she writes. "If Obama isn't ready for replacement in four years ... well, 2016 will come around soon enough."
From our perspective, it's hard to see Bayh losing his Senate seat in 2010 barring some sort of major unforeseen development. National Republicans made some noise earlier this year about targeting Bayh but his massive bank account (nearly $11 million cash on hand at the end of 2008) and his continued popularity in the Hoosier State have likely convinced them otherwise.
Bayh's attempt then to become not just the leader of Senate Democratic moderates but also someone willing to speak out against his party's president seems more aimed at bolstering his national credentials than anything else. That doesn't mean Bayh is positioning himself for a presidential run down the line (he may be but isn't necessarily doing so) but rather that he wants to ensure that when an alternate Democratic perspective is needed, he is the one who gets the call.
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