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Evan Bayh and the Senate's Lonely Moderates: Bridge-Builders No Longer Needed

5 years ago
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It's not easy being a moderate. Ask Arlen Specter, George Voinovich, Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, Max Baucus or, the latest in the spotlight, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. Announcing his decision to leave the Senate rather than run for a third term, Bayh described Congress as broken and himself as "a lonely voice."

The fact is that centrists and pragmatists, the people in both parties who normally serve as bridge-builders and consensus-builders, have no function in these days of lockstep discipline (attempted among Democrats, usually successful on the GOP side). Bayh's diagnosis: "There is much too much partisanship and not enough progress -- too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving."

In brief remarks to reporters in Indianapolis, as he and his family fought back tears, Bayh cited two tipping points: a proposed deficit reduction commission that failed in the Senate two weeks ago because seven Republican supporters "voted no for short-term political reasons," and a major jobs bill that fell apart last week "amid complaints from both the left and the right." He said that while he loves helping people make the most of their lives, "I do not love Congress."

The past year has been particularly tough on moderates in both parties. Pennsylvania's Specter took so much flak from Republicans in Congress and at home for helping negotiate an economic recovery package that he switched parties and is running for reelection as a Democrat. Last month, Talking Points Memo reported, Specter told bloggers that Republicans made the decision to "stonewall" Obama from the start. "There was no effort made to find any answer to the economic problems of the country, and it was just a no, no, no, and no discussion," he said. "I felt under tremendous pressure."

Snowe, of Maine, negotiated for months over health reform and voted for the Senate bill in committee. But she voted against it on the floor, saying the process was too fast. "That's hardly a reason," Specter said.

Voinovich, a former Ohio governor who is retiring from the Senate after this year, bucked his party and president on taxes numerous times in the last decade. He voted repeatedly to reduce, discontinue or flat out oppose tax cuts, and even suggested in 2006 that perhaps higher taxes were needed to finance two wars, homeland security and the Katrina cleanup.

His biggest headlines came last July when he ignited a cultural firestorm. Referring to Republican senators from South Carolina and Oklahoma, he told the Columbus Dispatch, "We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns." Voinovich said Ohioans hear them on TV and say, "The party's being taken over by Southerners. What they hell they got to do with Ohio?" Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana responded that southerners hold the "core values" of the GOP and hurled the ultimate insult at Voinovich. "He's a moderate, really wishy-washy," Vitter told "America's Morning News" radio show.

During the long, still incomplete march to pass a health reform bill, Democratic moderates – in particular Montana's Baucus and Nebraska's Nelson -- routinely took incoming from liberal bloggers for dragging the bill rightward. The left was especially critical of Bayh's take last month on Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts. Bayh told ABC News that voters up there "just don't believe the answers we are currently proposing are solving their problems." He said Democrats would court catastrophe if they ignored the wakeup call. John Amato wrote at that Bayh was promoting Fox News talking points. Bayh remains seemingly unenthused about health reform. It was conspicuously missing Monday from the list of issues he said he hoped to work on with Obama this year.

Now Bayh has given liberals and Democrats another reason for annoyance: his dilatory timing. Senate candidates must submit 500 signatures from each of the nine congressional districts to election officials by Tuesday, to be certified by the state on Friday. The headline at Howey Politics Indiana was "Bayh Waits Until 11th Hour to Bow Out."

The announcement was "an absolute stunner of epic proportions," publisher Brian Howey told me. He said the likely outcome is the state party will pick a candidate within the next couple of weeks. Names in the mix include two conservative Democratic House members, Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill, with experience winning in swing districts.

Bayh has been thinking seriously about retiring for as long as nine months and made his final decision "within the last several days," said Anita Dunn, a Bayh adviser. "There was no single precipitating thing," she said. She and other strategists said the entrance of former senator Dan Coats as a GOP rival was not a factor. Bayh has $13 million in the bank and had a 20 percentage point lead over Coats in a recent poll. "He was going to wipe the floor with Dan Coats. He could have been re-elected in a walk. He wasn't afraid of losing. He just didn't want to win," said Matt Bennett, vice president of public affairs for Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.

Bayh, son of former longtime senator Birch Bayh, has been a fixture in Indiana politics since he was elected secretary of state in 1986 at the age of 31. He went on to win two terms as governor and two as senator. He's been so ambitious for so long – he's been thinking about the White House for at least five years -- that it's hard to believe he's turning away from politics. The only thing certain from his speech is that he is walking away from Congress. Nothing he said would preclude a return to the arena after a break to run a company, a university or a philanthropic organization.

But it won't be the congressional arena. "I'm an executive at heart. I value my independence. I'm not motivated by strident partisanship or ideology," Bayh said. He has been talking openly about his disaffection for Congress since at least October 2006, when he told voters at a town meeting in Clarksville: "I loved being governor because you're making decisions, you're responsible for getting things done. Too often things in Washington are about giving speeches and casting symbolic votes."

Two months later Bayh had formed a presidential exploratory committee and was visiting New Hampshire. A few reporters, myself among them, went to hear him at a small reception in a function room at an events hall. He gave a canned, uninspired talk about his life and his reasons for running to an audience that seemed mainly to be students from a nearby Massachusetts college. His presence was utterly eclipsed the next day by two huge, buzzy events featuring fellow senator and presidential toe-dipper Barack Obama. A week later, Bayh said he would not be running after all.

But that wasn't the end of the story or his ambitions. Though Bayh was a stalwart Hillary Clinton backer in the primaries, he came very close to being Obama's vice presidential pick. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe wrote in his book The Audacity to Win that the finalists were Bayh, Joe Biden and then Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. The team concluded Bayh's caution and discipline would assure "headache-free days on the trail," Plouffe wrote. He said Bayh's best moments came when he talked about his family: "He gave off a humanity and warmth that was very appealing, and showed a dimension that belied his reputation."

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