The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, February 22, 2010

Moderation Takes a Bayh

The Senator’s Frustration is Understandable but He Is Also Part of the Problem

Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana plans to retire from the Senate because, in his own words, he does “not love Congress.” For a Midwesterner and a moderate, those are pretty inflammatory words. Specifically, Bayh is frustrated with the Senate as an institution because he says political bickering renders it impossible to get anything done and makes going to work a horror rather than an honor.

“There is too much partisanship and not enough progress [in Congress] – too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving . . . The vast majority [of Congress] are good, decent people who are trapped in a system that does not let that goodness and decency translate itself into legislative accomplishments . . . [Congress must change] so that sensible people can get the job done.”

Presumably, Bayh defines “sensible” as thinking the way he thinks. “The extremes of both Parties have to be willing to accept compromises,” he admonished.

Bayh may be slinking away from the Senate but he assures the same is not true of his commitment to public service. “I simply reached a conclusion that I could get more done to help my state and the American people by doing something in the private sector,” Bayh explained on ABC's Good Morning America, suggesting he might like running a university or charity, maybe even become a corporate CEO.

His fellow Democrats are inclined to believe Bayh’s reasons for packing it in – this is all the fault of Republican obstructionism, they say – but dubious about his proposed solution. “I don't understand how you make things better from the outside,” wondered Democratic Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts. “I share the frustration, but I would have hoped he would have stayed around.” For most liberals, Bayh is a craven in a high-stakes, ongoing war.

Republicans think Bayh is a craven too but for reasons of their own.

“The fact of the matter is Bayh and moderate Democrats across the country are running for the hills because they sold out their constituents and don't want to face them at the ballot box,” declared RNC Chairman Michael Steele in a written statement. Bayh’s departure is “merely the latest sign” in “the failure once again of liberal governance,” crows a Wall Street Journal editorial.

Today in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer confidently asserts, “a President with extensive executive experience, good political skills, and an ideological compass in tune with the public,” would make all these frustrations go away.

Political analysts and pundits are advancing conspiracy theories left and right on the real reason Bayh is leaving. Their conjectures include a feud with President Obama that began when he was passed over for Vice-President in favor of Joe Biden, his desire to run for President himself in the future, a cozy deal within the lobbying industry just like so many other former high-visibility politicians, or maybe even serve as a kind of unofficial spokesperson à la Sarah Palin.

I am willing to take Bayh at his word, more or less – that he is frustrated by an essentially nonproductive situation within the Beltway that shows no sign of easing any time in the near future, despite a looming threat of intense voter dissatisfaction. However, I do believe he is suffering from a couple of misconceptions in his rationale for leaving, no matter how sincere.

First, when Bayh speaks about “moderation,” I believe he is referring to a political process in which pragmatists cut and paste together seemingly irreconcilable partisan views/policies until a compromise is reached in which everybody is happy or at least nobody is terribly unhappy. That is the traditional view of moderates within Congress and they accumulated power and had some legitimate bragging rights to actual accomplishments by following this process.

However, “moderation” in Congress today is less a process for reconciling conflicting principles and become more its own set obstinately held centrist principles. Bayh says, and may actually even think, he is frustrated because vicious partisans will not let him and others of like mind perform their useful function. In truth, he is frustrated because he and others of like mind are now themselves every bit as viciously partisan. Instead of solving problems, they have become part of the problem.

After all, Democratic Senate moderates are every bit as much culpable for helping to derail meaningful healthcare reform, with incessant demands to water it down, as the Democratic House liberals who originally wrote it splendid isolation.

Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of The Nation, recognized this when she wrote in reaction to Bayh’s retirement as a blow to bipartisanship, “the country would be better off with a lot less bipartisanship, in any form, right now . . . Bayh’s idea of bipartisanship, it would seem, was to call oneself a Democrat in the caucus while promoting center-right policies in the chamber.”

Second, far more important than Bayh’s frustration with government is where he plans to go to “make a difference.” Some bewail that a dedicated public servant would find more opportunities to do good for his fellow citizens in the private sector. Other, more skeptical, observers insist that government is no different than it ever was and Bayh’s motivations are entirely self-serving.

Let us assume this is absolutely correct and Bayh is the most power-hungry, self-centered individual in Congress. It is still significant that such a Machiavellian would pursue power not in the U.S. Senate but at the head of a foundation, corporation, or lobbying firm.

As Bayh wrote this past weekend in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, “In my father’s time there was a saying – A Senator legislates for four years and campaigns for two. Because of the incessant need to raise campaign cash, we now have perpetual campaigns. If fund-raising is constantly on members’ minds, it’s difficult for policy compromise to trump political calculation.”

Sure, individuals and interest groups have long poured money into Washington and politicians have accepted it as a necessary evil to finance their campaigns. However, donors were motivated to pay that money because it was understood Representatives and Senators had the power and influence to actualize the things they desired. Today, government servants, especially bipartisan enablers like Bayh, have become unnecessary middlemen.

The role once played by our elected officials is increasingly being outsourced directly to Dollars, Euros, and Yuans. Interest groups often find they can bypass Washington and influence public opinion directly through advertising and propaganda, resulting in the public giving them more of the types of lawmakers they desire. Political ideologues, on both sides, are far more attractive candidates than moderates to such spenders because they represent a more understandable and reliable brand.

Bayh is correct to criticize the current atmosphere in Washington. His critics are also correct to suggest he almost certainly exaggerates both its uniqueness and its severity. However, there is no question that a significant and regrettable paradigm shift is occurring in which moderation is becoming increasingly less a pragmatic problem-solving process and more its own obdurate set of center-right principles.

As for Bayh’s preference for the private sector, that is simply his natural pragmatism rising to the surface. Any dreams for the Presidency that he harbors may be a ill-chosen deviation from that practical path. The recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission only accentuates the trend Bayh already discerns. Money has always meant power in Washington but there was always a tradeoff between the two. Now, the greatest power and influence lies not with those receiving money but with those holding the ability to distribute it.

The “corporatization” of America continues unabated and, for the moment at least, moderation has decided to take a bye. The tactic might work because “bipartisanship,” and “practical common sense,” and “pragmatism,” and “moderation” are what so many Americans claim to yearn after right now. However, after ideologues in the two Parties, have shot it out, any triumphal return by middle-ground candidates is likely to cause only more disappointment to an already dispirited electorate – especially if it is the kind of “moderation” practiced by Evan Bayh.

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