In another blow to Democrats, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana announced his retirement this week, bringing to five the number of Dems "running for the hills," to borrow the President's phrase.
Bayh, a longtime member of Congress, former Presidential hopeful, and a prodigious fundraiser, was favored to win re-election handily this year.
So why the hasty retreat, throwing his party into crisis and leaving little time for another Democrat to get the signatures together to run for his seat in Republican Indiana?
In his valedictory speech, Bayh cited the "growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should."
During his more than two decades in office, Bayh has seen the power and influence of lobbyists grow, television advertising drive the cost of campaigning into the stratosphere, and the "permanent campaign" take hold, at the same time that industry groups literally draft bills in Congress.
None of that came into his explanation for why, as he put it, "I don't love Congress," however. Instead, Bayh saddled up that old hobbyhorse, partisanship, as he explained why he was ditching his party, his President, and his government.
Bayh's top two examples of dysfunctional partisanship in government: the Senate's refusal to approve a commission to rein in deficits that would have placed the fate of Social Security and Medicare in the hands of a closed-door panel of unelected "experts," and job-creation legislation that many Democrats opposed because it was mainly a collection of tax cuts without much stimulus spending.
What Bayh and other centrist Democrats call partisanship, some call democracy. "I'm an executive at heart," Bayh said, explaining why he can't stand all the dickering about things like reining in entitlement spending that go on in Congress. But deficits and spending, especially in the current economic climate, are at the heart of politics. To pass off these issues to a commission, or to try to reach "compromise" with an increasingly rabid opposition party by giving away the store, is to give up on the fundamental interests of the people who elect representatives to go to Washington and defend them.
But that sort of uncool, populist talk is exactly what turns off a centrist like Bayh.
Instead of fighting over ideological differences--what Bayh calls "strident partisanship"--he wants to work for "progress, not politics" in the private sector, he said. He has no immediate employment plans.
"But if I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months," he told Maggie Rodriguez on the CBS "Early Show".
Never mind those 595,263 jobs funded by the Recovery Act.
In the end, Bayh's speech sounded like little more than a rationale for cashing out.
Tune in to find out what kind of "progress not politics" the ex-Senator makes as he looks for private sector employment. (Hint: banks and insurance companies loved him.)
Bayh's sanctimonious prevarications about the excesses of government-- on the one hand extolling his own public service ("what matters is not what you take from life but what you give back"), and on the other hand getting out while the getting is good--sort of make you feel more warmly about the simplicity of naked avarice.
Remember when Republican Presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson tried to make a connection with Jewish voters by gloating that, since he had left public office, "for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that?”
That's what you call a bipartisan, multicultural appeal to the spirit that makes America great: raw greed.
It's also the sort of narrow self-interest that is killing the Democrats. As Chuck Todd and the rest of the political team at MSNBC point out, Dems like Bayh show how little stomach their party really has for a fight:
"If we told you that Democrats were favored to lose about eight Senate seats (six of which are in states Obama carried in '08), lose some 30 to 40 in the House, and see their top domestic issue -- health care -- stalled in Congress, you’d guess that President Obama’s approval rating was, what, 35%? Maybe 40%? But as any close follower of American politics knows, Obama’s approval is at or near 50% (even at 53% in the always-volatile Gallup daily track). Yet Democrats, including what we saw and heard from Evan Bayh yesterday, are behaving like Obama is at 35%. This is particularly ironic when we’re just a year-plus removed from a president whose approval was 25% to 30%. There is no doubt that this is a TOUGH political environment for Democrats, but are they making it tougher by running for the hills when things might not be as bad for them as was the GOP’s situation from 2006-2008? And what does it say about the Democrats and their ability to govern when they’re acting like this when their president is at 50%?"
Like Tommy Thompson (and unlike his beloved father, an old-fashioned liberal Democrat) Bayh made his career bashing welfare and boosting business.
He was particularly good at the latter.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bayh's top contributor was the finance, insurance, and real estate sector, which gave him $4,410,497 over the course of his career--nearly twice as much as his next biggest sponsor, lawyers and lobbyists.
The firm that gave Bayh the most money of all: Goldman Sachs.
That might have been a liability for Bayh had he stayed in the race to retain his Senate seat. Although he was widely quoted blaming the "far left" of his party for losing Teddy Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, Republicans in Indiana were making noises about the millions Bayh's wife has made sitting on various health-insurance industry corporate boards. Former Senator (and Bank of America lobbyist) Dan Coats, who retired in 1998, was $13 million behind Bayh in fundraising, but nonetheless his entry into the race created what the Cook Political Report called a competitive situation.
Who knows, with Bayh out of the race, maybe a candidate who is not in hock to the finance or insurance lobbies might have a chance.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive magazine. To subscribe for just $14.97 a year, just click here.