Evan Bayh's decision to quit his Senate seat brings to mind the poetry of William Butler Yeats:
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
The veteran Indiana Democrat - known mostly for his thwarted presidential ambitions, his chiseled jaw, and his cautious centrism - has certainly loosed anarchy upon the political community in the wake of his stunning Monday announcement. A lot of people have been trying to divine the true reasons behind his bailout (maybe he wants to position himself for a second stint as Indiana governor, or maybe a future presidential bid; maybe he didn't relish the notion of defending the Obama agenda to the Hoosiers back home). A lot of people have been maligning Bayh as a gutless guy (he's bailing despite a 20-point poll lead and $13 million in the bank for a '10 re-election campaign, all because he might actually face the first serious race in his career). A lot of people have been fixated on the national political ramifications, wondering if the Bayh bailout will boost the Republicans' ambitious bid to run the table and take over the Senate.
But I'm most focused on what Bayh's departure says about the gridlocked, polarized chamber that he has inhabited since 1999; in his words, "there are a lot of really good people trapped in a dysfunctional system." His blunt disdain struck me as sincere, precisely because I had heard him talk that way in the past. He had long voiced frustration with the growing chasm between right and left, with the dwindling opportunities for moderates to forge compromises and govern effectively.
On July 28, 2003, he sat with a few of us political scribes and warned, in the spirit of Yeats, that the center cannot hold. At the time, George W. Bush and the Republicans ran the show; in the minority camp, Democrats were falling under the spell of Howard Dean and his liberal netroots. Bayh wasn't happy with either side.
I still have my notes from that Bayh session. Here's some of what he said: "There is so much skepticism in the country about government. We need lean, efficient, productive government...The problem is, the national government is being run by the far right, and the Democratic party is under threat of being taken over by the far left. We need to stay in the center...If we (Democrats) go too far left, we hurt ourselves. It's like assisted suicide....Do we want to vent, or do we want to govern?"
By that summer, however, he was well aware that the center was disappearing, that the Senate was becoming inexorably more polarized, that the Republican members were moving rightward while the Democratic members were moving leftward.
Many of the best moderate Republican dealmakers - Bill Cohen of Maine, Nancy Kassenbaum of Kansas, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, John Danforth of Missouri, David Durenberger of Minnesota - had already bailed from the Senate by the time Bayh arrived. And by the end of 2004, moderate Democratic dealmakers - such as John Breaux of Louisiana, Bib Graham of Florida, and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina - were gone as well. (Breaux explained that moderates "have to have someone to meet with. You can't meet with yourself in a phone booth.")
No wonder things have fallen apart; today's Senate can't even get its act together to create a bipartisan commission on the national debt. No wonder Bayh got fed up. Bayh has long been viewed by the liberal Democratic base as a bit of a bore (which is one reason why his presidential ambitions have gone nowhere), but he's the kind of guy who might well have thrived in a less vitriolic Senate, one that was dedicated to problem-solving. His departure virtually ensures that the Senate will cohere even less.
As former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry said yesterday, in remarks posted on Politico, "Centrism is not much in fashion these days, but the lack of it is wrecking our country."
Indeed, Senate scholar Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution warned about "an unprecedented disappearance of the political center. In a political system that demands compromise and accomodation to bring about change, the center is considered vital to the moderate, bipartisan policymaking generally preferred by the American public. Absent a political center, oncreased partisanship and ideological polarization are inevitable - and sure to feed public distrust of, and distaste for, politicians and the political process."
Well, guess what: Binder penned that warning in 1996. Things have been falling apart, at an accelerating pace, ever since. And the question that Bayh posed to us journalists, during that summer '03 meeting, is arguably more urgent today, given all the challenges we face:
"Do we want to vent, or do we want to govern?"
Meanwhile, let's take a look at the calendar.
Today marks the start of this blog's fifth year. Thanks for your continued support.
And tomorrow ushers in the four sweetest words of the English language: Pitchers and catchers report.