It is to Evan Bayh's enormous credit that he never settled comfortably into the Washington political scene. His decision to pack it in, after 12 years, is a loss to his party, and even more to his country. Most of all, it's a withering rebuke to Congress, which seems to have lost the knack for governing.
If anyone could have been expected to make a seamless transition to the national political stage, it was Bayh, the handsome, dutiful son of former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh. But from his arrival here in 1998, Bayh seemed frustrated with the ideological and partisan hothouse that is contemporary Washington.
Maybe that's because Bayh was a popular, two-term governor of Indiana who built a solid record of progressive reform in a fairly conservative state. He isn't the first ex-governor to bring an executive temperament to Congress, only to feel stymied in an institution where partisan power struggles and the evasion of hard choices often trump public problem-solving.
Bayh nonetheless has distinguished himself as a leader of his party's pragmatic wing, as a former chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and key organizer of an influential group of centrist Senate Democrats. In the Senate, he has championed the economic prospects of working Americans, like the many who have lost jobs in Indiana's troubled manufacturing sector. He has been a stalwart for fiscal discipline, echoing the Jeffersonian view (best articulated by John Randolph of Virginia) that elected officials should spend every public dollar as if it were their own. And Bayh has filled a critical vacuum in the Democratic Party for credible, tough-minded voices on national security and foreign policy.
Bayh's earnest centrism and refusal to put partisanship over considerations of national interest have not endeared him to the Democratic left. Some self-appointed commissars of ideological correctness are even saying "good riddance" to the Indiana Democrat. This is monumentally dumb.
If Democrats want to become the nation's majority party again, it can only be as a broad coalition of pragmatic centrists and liberals, including a large dollop of the independent voters who have been drifting away from the party since the 2008 election. However overrepresented they may be in the chattering class, liberal purists constitute less than a quarter of the national electorate.
In fact, Democrats should worry plenty about Bayh's decision. With the midterm election looming, the last thing they want to do is give the impression of a party hostile to pragmatic centrists and independents who have similar views. And the departure of a serious, public-spirited leader of Bayh's caliber can only deepen the public's jaundiced view of Congress.
"There is too much partisanship and... too much narrow ideology in Washington," Bayh said in explaining his decision not to seek reelection. "Even at a time of enormous national challenge, the people's business is not getting done."
That's right, and it's a big problem for the governing party.
This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.