Evan Bayh, retiring moderate Democrat, embodies the battle for the American center

Evan Bayh, honorable centrist Democrat from Indiana, retires from the United States Senate in January, replaced on election night by Republican Dan Coats in what has become the most Republican Great Lakes state.  Bayh’s election-day column in the New York Times anticipates precisely how Democrats and Republicans will square off for the great American center both despised and urgently desired by ideologues of both parties.

Bayh, I predict, will be largely ignored by Democrats, who sniffed at his late decision not to run for re-election — and because a sufficient number of Democrats consider any Bayh-like concession to the three-quarters of Americans who are conservative or moderate ideological treason.

Evan Bayh retired in part because that message of moderation went woefully unheeded in his party.  Perhaps he imagines now that the election results add an urgency to his message.  And indeed it does, for Democrats and Republicans.

“It is clear,” Bayh wrote, “that Democrats over-interpreted our mandate.”

Talk of a “political realignment” and a “new progressive era” proved wishful thinking. Exit polls in 2008 showed that 22 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals, 32 percent as conservatives and 44 percent as moderates. An electorate that is 76 percent moderate to conservative was not crying out for a move to the left.

We also overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession. It was a noble aspiration, but $1 trillion in new spending and a major entitlement expansion are best attempted when the Treasury is flush and the economy strong, hardly our situation today.

I’ve written about the gift to Republicans of Democratic overreaching, and the caution demanded of Republicans believing they have received a new mandate.  I’ve also written about the critical importance of the center, about the urgency for Republicans to embrace moderation and police their extremes (as I would wish, without optimism, for Democrats to do).

I want Republicans to win this center.  Evan Bayh, with a kind of wistfulness, wants Democrats to win it.  The battle for the center begins by speaking respectfully to conservatives and moderates — the 76%.  Evan Bayh does it for Democrats.  “Don’t blame the voters,” he says.  “They aren’t stupid or addled by fear. They are skeptical about government efficacy, worried about the deficit and angry that Democrats placed other priorities above their main concern: economic growth.”  Indeed.  Republicans benefited greatly by such Democratic condescension.  We cannot continue to count on that misstep.

Republicans must step up — and that means conservatives and moderates speaking a language of mutual respect.  Some of the nonsense I’ve read about conservatives threatening to form a new party if Republicans don’t tow the line, and how it’s all about conservatives brandishing their new power, is a ticket to Republicans, and conservatives, dwelling haplessly on American political margins, dreaming puritan dreams while Democrats consolidate power and make policy.

I support Republicans because I don’t believe Democrats can advance American prosperity and pride as successfully as Republicans — notwithstanding Evan Bayh’s articulate entreaty to the center.  If Evan Bayh’s embrace of the centrist Third Way had any real resonance with the Democratic base, any real power within the party, any capacity to thwart liberal special interest agendas , then many more moderates would be voting Democratic.

Evan Bayh himself is a good example of Democratic moderate futility.  A member of the Senate New Democrat Coalition and promoter of the centrist “Third Way,” Bayh contemplated a run for the presidency in 2008.  What did he have to do in anticipation of Democratic party primaries?

He announced his support for the despicable Employee Free Choice Act, the freedom-stripping, big labor aggrandizement bill, because the Democratic party is hopelessly beholden to labor unions.  Senator Bayh knew better, but had no choice.  An uproar ensued in Indiana, and once Bayh opted out of the presidential race, he had very sensible, very Evan Bayh, second thoughts about EFCA and card-check.  Because he could.

He also voted against the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts — joining the hard-core liberal Senate Democrats in safe blue states (the vote was 78-22) — because, well, he had to, regardless of principle, confronting a national Democratic primary.  He voted as well against the confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito — not because he truly deemed Alito an unqualified Supreme Court justice, but because Supreme Court nominations have become shrieking litmus tests for special interest groups that loom large in party primaries.

He voted for the Detroit bailout, for the stimulus, and for the public option in the healthcare bill — not because a thoughtful centrist of Evan Bayh’s character wouldn’t have welcomed compromise on each of these measures, but because he anticipated needing the uncompromising Democratic base in Democratic primaries.

That’s what happened to a moderate Democrat.  I began this column calling Bayh an honorable centrist, and it may sound like I’ve reversed myself with a checklist of seemingly unprincipled votes.  Not at all.  Reasonable minds can differ on all these votes.  The issue in politics is to whom you are most beholden.  I suspect Evan Bayh’s retirement was a little less about what the Senate had become, and a little more about what partisan presidential politics had obliged him to become — frankly immoderate.  In such circumstances, retirement, particularly retirement that rankles your own party, is an honorable decision.  Had Evan Bayh not contemplated running for the presidency in 2008, he may well have continued being a steady voice of moderation in the United States Senate.

Some will take this sketch of Evan Bayh’s moderation precisely as a rebuke of moderation — witness the halving of the Blue Dog Democrats in the House.  See what happens to moderates.  That would be a mistake.  Blue Dog Democrats lost because Democrats lost, particularly in Red States, where voters oblige Democrats to be Blue Dog Democrats if Democrats at all.  Democrats lost because they spent two years being immoderate.

In urging Democrats to the center, Bayh had this very partisan observation, a luxury perhaps of no longer needing to reach across the aisle:  “Having seen so many moderates go down to defeat in this year’s primaries, few Republicans in Congress will be likely to collaborate. And as the Republicans — including the party’s 2012 presidential candidates — genuflect before the Tea Party and other elements of the newly empowered right wing, President Obama can seize the center.”

Yet the halving of the Blue Dog Democrats in the House, the caucus to which Bayh doubtless would have belonged had he been a House member — the “liberalization” of the remaining House Democrats — makes Bayh’s statement just as applicable to Democrats, with different genuflections.  And, to come full circle, it is why Bayh is likely to be ignored by Democrats, notwithstanding his partisan exploitation of the Tea Party as an incendiary metaphor for immoderation.

American political history is a vibrant lesson in the checked and counter-checked hubris of liberals and conservatives.  Liberals invariably vote for liberals and conservatives invariably vote for conservatives.  So this American political history is very much about how moderates do the checking and counter-checking.  Democrats are more likely than Republicans to ignore this lesson, but we’ll see.  Democrats are, after all, the more recently chastened.


[Also published at The Daily Caller.]

One Response to Evan Bayh, retiring moderate Democrat, embodies the battle for the American center

  1. Ela Macdowell says:

    Quite interesting! I enjoyed reading this and learned a lot.

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