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Politics

I never much cared for Sen. Evan Bayh, and care even less for his lame explanation of why he is retiring. It’s not that he’s one of an increasingly extinct number of centrist legislators who presume to be better than partisans from either side of the aisle, or that he expects to exercise power beyond his lone vote. And, to be fair, the laments Bayh expressed upon departure are hardly comparable to the steady diet of hang-wringing sanctimony we get from self-styled saviors, like Bayh’s colleagues Joe Lieberman and John McCain.

It’s just that complaints about America’s polarized politics are especially hypocritical coming from Bayh’s mouth. Why?

For starters, there is far more moderation, not to mention comity, on display in the U.S. Senate than almost anywhere else in American legislative politics. James Madison’s epic Federalist #10 is always remembered for the first half of his two-part argument for the republican form, but most forget the second, corollary half: That as one increases the population size of a representative district there is a greater tendency to elect persons of greater moderation, in both disposition and ideology. Yes, as I pointed out recently the number of states with same-party senators is very high. But there are still some split-party Senate delegations, including Bayh’s Indiana (at least for the moment). If there’s a legislative institution in the country where moderation has it best chance, it’s the one with six-year terms and non-gerrymandered “districts” that include millions and in some cases tens of millions of constituents.

…to which Bayh might complain: Well, if partisan polarization has even poisoned the Senate then no safe haven exists anywhere in American politics for people like him. OK, fair enough. But the notion of a government run based on bi-partisan cooperation among moderates from each party is a fictional fairyland that never existed in the first place, and split-party governance is hardly better. Listening to Bayh wax poetically about the past is like hearing a lecture from your dad (or Bayh’s, since his father was senator, too) about how morally superior America was 50 years ago, and then flipping on an episode of Mad Men to see dad’s generation drunk by lunch and patting their secretaries’ bottoms.

And what is the alternative? Divided government where moderates in each party reign? Let’s not forget that in the 41 years since the 1968 elections, we’ve had four years of unified government under Jimmy Carter, two under Bill Clinton, six (if you ignore the Jim Jeffords switch) under George W. Bush, and one so far under Obama—so basically two-thirds of the time we’ve had divided government, which seems to be what moderates crave. This is also the very same period that high-minded pundits lament has been characterized by non-solutions to intractable problems, budgetary stalemate, rising government deficits, and disastrous policy choices, a state of affairs for which each party, with some cause, points the finger of blame at the other. (Clinton’s Fannie Mae caused the financial crisis! No, Bush’s de-regulation of markets is at fault!)

Which brings me to my point: From a representation and government accountability standpoint, party government—and yes, even very ideological party government—has its value. Whether you think rule under George W. Bush and the Republican Congress last decade was the best or worst thing to happen to America, at least you know who was responsible for it. And whether you like the direction Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress are taking the country now, again, you know who is in charge. Elections, as the sagacious Dick Cheney reminded us, have consequences.

Or they should have. But Bayh and people like him think elections don’t have consequences because, well, he’s in Washington. And Sen. Bayh’s sensibilities trump policy progress. Not to dismiss entirely the Scott Brown victory, but the Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 cycles combined flipped the White House by about 10 popular-vote percentage points, picked up 16 net Senate seats (16 percent of that chamber), and 61 House seats (14 percent). Yet policy is not supposed to respond at all to these shifts, but instead hew closely to whatever happens to catch the fancy of senators like Bayh, Lieberman, McCain or Specter as they ride in the town car to the Meet The Press studios any given Sunday morning? This makes no sense.

Here’s the role that moderates should play in American politics:

1. They should lay down markers now and again, and occasionally be a holdout when the policy process is insufficiently transparent or the national deliberation insufficiently substantive. Majority-party moderates needn’t rubberstamp every item of their majority’s agenda, nor should minority-party moderates be co-opted tools. However, they shouldn’t expect their ideal policy preference to be the outcome produced by the majority party caucus for which they serve as either an in-party outlier or an out-party critic. This is policy hostage-taking, and it is more dangerous and corrosive to democracy than the ideological, one-party rule moderates so often carp about.

2. Then, after they have negotiated for some concessions or refinements, and precisely because those concessions and refinements were made to accommodate their rhetorical or literal opposition, their role at that point is to wholeheartedly back the compromise. They are fully entitled to clarify their vote for the constituents, saying something like, “Look, this is not the legislation that a chamber full of people like me would produce, but this is a good and good-faith effort by the majority party to solve this national problem.” But what they shouldn’t be allowed to do is hold the process hostage and extract certain policy concessions and still complain about both the process and the outcome. It would be more intellectually honest to just vote against the legislation and criticize it–or even vote for it and criticize it.

As for Bayh’s particular strain of moderation, his is even more distressing because the guy’s hardly a legislative titan. On the workhorse-showhorse continuum, he’s far closer to the latter than the former end of the horse, so to speak. Say what you want about somebody like McCain, but at least his name is on some major pieces of legislation that took years and tons of political capital to force through Congress. What are Bayh’s legislative achievements after nearly two terms in the Senate? Please tell me. And if the holes in Bayh’s legislative resume can be partially explained by the fact that he spent most of his Senate career in the minority, then heck: Now’s your chance, Senator. You finally became part of the majority without the White House in 2006, and then became part of an even larger chamber majority plus the Oval Office in 2008. Now’s the moment to make your mark, to leave an impression beyond that of a white flag-waving politician whining that the Senate has become a politically inhospitable environment for a senator’s son.

But no. Instead, he’s had enough. Well, Buh-Bayh, Senator.

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