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Bayh's Centrist Gambit

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh has emerged as a leading Democratic critic of President Obama. AP Photo by Alex Brandon

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.

Writes Smith:

"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.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 18, 2009; 2:57 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Senate  
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The mentality being expressed in the majority of posts here is the reason I am now an Independent voter after 30 years as a member of the Democratic party... What is the least bit progressive about this type of closed-mindedness -- the kind that seeks to prohibit dissenting opinions and limit the very discourse that might render a better end result? Are we so weak and such ideologues that we cannot stand to even hear and consider different viewpoints without threatening political retaliation?

If this is the new version of a "progressive" or a "liberal" (HA!), then the Dems might as well trade in the donkey for a sheep.

BTW, people should remember that Senator Bayh helped deliver his state to Obama last fall -- the first time IN has voted Democratic in a presidential election in over 40 years...

Posted by: HoosierVoter | March 25, 2009 1:34 AM | Report abuse

Where was this coalition during Bush's ruinous 8 years?

Posted by: jillcohen | March 19, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Evan Bayh is a fookin neocon, and this is the Israel first mob staking out their un-American ground. Cilliza is the lamest ziocon propagandist right behind Krauthammer..

Posted by: Shootingsparks | March 19, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

I am so glad to hear from a pragmatic Democrat -- I am a lifelong Dem. who feels totally alienated by the Obamanation.

Posted by: newbeeboy | March 19, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

I am from the extreme left and vote with the Dems pragmatically- but I don't get those of you who will insult ANYONE who doesn't agree with Barack on everything- it is good to have lots of opinions- walking in lockstep might work politically for an election or two but it is disasterous politically- look at the first 6 years of Bush for an example
Bayh can say whatever he wants- let there be a market of ideas (since the the conservatives love their market)- perhaps the best idea can win out- that is why I hate when our side resorts to the same namecalling that theirs does- just point out that they are just name calling and without ideas- and present our ideas- stereotyping old or stupid or redneck or whatever is divisive and patronizing and doesn't do anything to bring about concensus.

Posted by: nycLeon | March 18, 2009 9:01 PM | Report abuse

This why Bayh is, and will forever be, stuck in a backwoods flyover state like Indiana...
"Centrist"...just a pretty word for cretin or coward.

Posted by: kase | March 18, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

As of this morning, millions of outraged Democrats learned Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, and Tom Carper and others have formed a coalition of Democrats to join with the Republican Party in thwarting the President’s economic recovery, and they are doing it under the guise of “Deficit Reduction.” As I write, Democratic action groups across this country have moved into action. I don’t think anyone should underestimate the outrage at Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, and Tom Carper, and the other Democrats who join him. We have networks of millions established during Obama’s campaign, and these workers can mobilize in a matter of minutes. As I write this, the Internet is buzzing with the names of these Democrats, and people are furious.
I, and millions of other Americans, donated money, worked long hours, walked the streets, pounded on doors, made phone calls, took bus trips, campaigned hard to get a President with some gumption and some principles elected, and Bayh and his little group of dissenting Democrats want to take the Republican “high road.” He wants to destroy the dreams and hard work of millions of Americans by behaving like a bunch of crackpot Republicans that have been disgraced—all at a time when the country needs to spend. Indeed, here we are in 2009 with the second greatest economic disaster in the history of this country, and Bayh and his group are trying to undo what millions of Americans worked so hard to do—to form a unified Democratic Party that would part with the old ways of Republican greed, spending, warmongering, spying on ordinary Americans, assass-
ination squads, and so many other unconscionable acts that I can’t begin to name them all.
How can these rogue Democrats think they are smarter than Nouriel Roubini, Paul Krugman, or the dozens of other economists who study the economy? Do they think that they can stand with John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Boehner, DeMint and really make this country better? Not on our watch. Americans have educated themselves about this economy. We aren’t just a bunch of uneducated, uncaring voters who will follow the Bush doctrine until the end of time. We want our senators to be accountable—not to the Republicans—but to us!
If Bayh and these other dissenters ruin our economy, they will be held accountable at election time. I’m almost retirement age, and my pension has been ruined by these people, and Bayh and others have chosen the low road. Americans are tired of the same old policies. Bayh and his fellow dissenters need to understand that.

Posted by: lcmartin1 | March 18, 2009 7:07 PM | Report abuse

Dear Senator Bayh...

We shall see...

You remind me of EDDIE HASKELL on "Leave it to Beaver"

Jack from Indy..........

Posted by: jindy60 | March 18, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Is it too much to ask that the democrats work TOGETHER, come to a consensus, and pass an agenda that will actually promote needed changes? I realize it's still "early days" but while different senators posture, the opportunities to pass meaningful reform of health care and energy are dwindling. Yes, we need a diversity of viewpoints. But at what point does this become counterproductive? Of course, leadership in the senate and house would help, but I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: -pamela | March 18, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

As a home-grown constituent of Bayh's, I'd say that the Dems around here would jump on any feasable primary candidate.

I think debate is fine, but Bayh is being oppositional just for the sake of it, and I agree, to ease the fears back home that he's just gettin' a mite too liberal.

Posted by: Mazarin | March 18, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Come on, leapin, I know Alan Keyes called Obama a "radical Communist," but do you think the people voted for a Bolshevik? Maybe a Menshevik, perhaps? Or perhaps a Trotskyite? That makes you a Fascist?

Posted by: Sutter | March 18, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

"Even the stupid people are stirring."

referring to yourself no doubt, lclifton.

Posted by: drindl | March 18, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

As a Hoosier, this is Bayh courting the voters...this post is not written in least I hope not.

Posted by: IndyJeff2020 | March 18, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

A few of the "centerists" aligned with Bayh are Liebermann, Mary Landrieu, Mark Warner, etc. From past performance, some of the 14 Senators are closer to being Republicans than Democrats. I also believe that we need some centerists but we don't need de facto Republicans to undermine and divide the party.

Posted by: amac3 | March 18, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

My God! Obama and his ilk are on a frantic, wild spending spree as our economy teters on ruin. Any sensible Democrat would consider bolting. The wheels are coming off the Obama jalopy before the Dems got out of the driveway.
Meanwhile, this nut-job proposed having our military men and women who are wounded fighting our enemies to file their claims through their private insurance companies.
This guy is bad, bad news - worse than anyone suspected.
Any Republicans that don't capitalize on these dimocrats in WH and Congress, are sleeping.
I have never heard such a clamor against government policies as I hear every day now on the street. Even the stupid people are stirring.

Posted by: lclifton | March 18, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

The Fix reports
""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.""

Indeed it does. The question is whether the good senator is posturing, or bringing good policy ideas to the table.

Posted by: bsimon1 | March 18, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Comrade leapin, Comrade Rush wants a word with you...

Posted by: drindl | March 18, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

Breaking all your promises and cheating on your taxes will help you be heard by Obama's Bolsheviks.

Posted by: leapin | March 18, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

One look at the pasty preachy pic tells you all you need to know.

Posted by: drindl | March 18, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Oh christ, just what we need -- a pompous little 'centrist' with his own agenda...

shut up, bayh.

Posted by: drindl | March 18, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

blood in the water? Yes, but Bayh is no shark. But when you are the weeny son of a famous politico you gotta do what you gotta do.

Posted by: angriestdogintheworld | March 18, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

This is centrist democrats pulling a CYA. Cover you "you know what" in case Obama fails.

If Bush had this terrible amount of party unity, he would have lost in 2004.

Democrats just know how to screw up a good thing, by sniping at each other to keep themselves, not the overall party in power.

Posted by: PJF311 | March 18, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

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