Bayh's Unbelievable Exit Line

[ Posted Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 – 16:09 UTC ]

Senator Evan Bayh's recent announcement that he will not seek re-election this year just sent a serious shockwave throughout the American political universe. The timing of Bayh's announcement, though, belies his oh-so-pious stated reason for leaving -- that things were just too darn partisan in Washington. Because the immediate result of Bayh's announcement will be that the Democratic Party will hand-pick a candidate for the general election, rather than allowing the voters to make this choice for themselves. In other words, things are just so darn partisan that Bayh will let the party itself select a candidate, rather than having a primary election. When put this way, it doesn't sound so pious after all, does it?

The standard line when exiting the Washington stage is, of course, "I want to spend more time with my family." Bayh chose not to go this route, and instead sounded as if he were taking some sort of stand against the poisonous atmosphere in Washington. But taking a stand usually means sticking around and fighting for what you believe in, rather than throwing your hands up and walking away from the problem. Perhaps after Bayh becomes a well-paid health insurance lobbyist, he will foster bipartisanship by spreading lots of campaign donations around -- to the members of both parties who kowtow to the insurance industry's wants and needs. Since this is the most likely future outcome of Bayh's decision (seeing as how his wife already sits on the board of WellPoint), it's a little hard to see working on K Street as striking some sort of blow for the common man. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Bayh is no enemy to corporate interests himself, so his new job won't require much of a change in philosophy. He has been part of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) for years, which brought us the notion that if Democrats just got in bed with big corporations, then they could pull in those big campaign bucks just like the Republicans.

But, Bayh-bashing aside, his sudden departure from the candidate field means that the Democratic Party will now select a candidate for the upcoming Senate race, because Bayh timed his announcement to all but guarantee that no candidate would be able to gather the required signatures to get on the primary ballot before the deadline (which passed at noon today). Thus denying Democratic Hoosier voters the chance to pick their own candidate to replace Bayh.

This is a shame, because the rigors of a primary contest usually produce a better candidate for the general election. This isn't always true, of course, but it usually helps (when running a statewide race) to go through a primary round before taking on the other party, because the primaries test each candidate's mettle in an actual race, so the voters can judge for themselves how they will stand up against the other party's candidate in the fall. To be fair, sometimes not having to go through a primary strengthens a candidate for the general election, since they won't be attacked as early, and have more money to spend in the fall. But, either way, in a state that has a primary election system, the right thing to do is to allow the voters themselves to decide.

Not having that process not only denies the voters this preliminary look at the candidates, but it also short-circuits the process of determining political philosophy for the state's Democrats, as well. This would have been instructive, to say the least, because while the Tea Party folks on the right get a lot of attention, there is a similar battle brewing within the Democratic Party as to which direction the party should take in the near future. And now we won't get a chance to put this to the test, at least in Indiana.

The Progressive Left has argued for more purity in the Democratic Party, and routinely derides the Blue Dog Centrists. And vice-versa, for that matter. Both sides see their way as the way forward for the party. The Progressives say: "if Democrats would just act like Democrats, and fight hard for the principles they get elected on, then the Democratic Party would have a much easier time of it in elections," whereas the Blue Dogs echo Bayh in thinking: "Democrats need to court independent voters and suburban voters by veering away from scary Lefty positions, and focus on compromise so we can move things forward incrementally, while remaining friendly to businesses that create jobs." Indiana would have been an interesting chance to test these propositions out, but alas, this is not what will happen.

Indiana itself can only be called a "purple" state right now, as it did indeed vote for President Obama over McCain, but at the same time has an electorate much more conservative than most truly "blue" states. Which means the outcome of a primary would likely have shown some Lefties that it simply is not possible to elect Bernie Sanders clones in every state of the Union -- that some states are just beyond reach of a true Lefty Progressive. But the theory of "throw all the Blue Dogs out" will remain untested, at least in Indiana, this time around. Names being floated as possible candidates right now show that the party is interested in finding someone ideologically pretty similar to Bayh.

Which might be the best result after all, since no matter how they get onto the ballot, they've still got to run against a Republican in November. In other words, the fact that the party is selecting the candidate might result in pretty much the same candidate that the voters would have chosen anyway. But by denying the voters this choice, the party opens itself up to charges of being anti-democratic (small-d), which the Republicans are already trying to exploit politically. Times being what they are, party-selected candidates aren't all that popular an idea (see, for instance, what happened in NY-23, where the hand-picked Republican got savaged by a Tea Party candidate, resulting in the election of a Democrat).

It's looking more and more like an anti-establishment year out there, and having the establishment choose a candidate doesn't strike me right now as the best strategy. But because of the timing of Bayh's announcement, we'll never know what could have happened. A neophyte candidate attempted to get the required 4,500 signatures by the deadline today, but she has reportedly fallen far short of what she needed to qualify. Nobody else even attempted getting on the ballot this way. The reason isn't that no other Democrats are interested in the seat, the reason is that they had mere hours to gather these signatures, because Bayh waited so long to make his decision.

Bayh could have made his announcement weeks ago -- or even months ago. This would have provided a truly open field, and a truly democratic process to choose a candidate. He chose not to do so. There is no explanation of this other than either (1) backroom dealings designed to give the party machine the power to make the choice, or (2) self-serving egotism in deciding at the last minute just because Bayh felt like making everyone wait on him. Of course, as with any sudden and unexpected announcement of this nature in the political world, there's always an outside chance that some scandal lurks around Bayh, which we haven't learned about yet. Call it "the other shoe to drop" theory.

But barring such a scandal, the timing of Bayh's announcement must be condemned on general principles. I have, in the past, taken Democrats to task for this sort of thing before (most notably calling on Teddy Kennedy to step down rather than hanging on to the very end). The right and proper way for an elected official -- who genuinely cares about his party's prospects of keeping his seat -- is to announce you won't be running for re-election with plenty of time for others to jump into the race (as Chris Dodd did earlier this year). If the polls say you're going to lose badly in the fall (as Dodd's did), then you gracefully step aside and allow someone else a crack at it who may have a better chance than you. If you have a medical problem or a family problem or an impending scandal, again -- getting out earlier is better. If you're stepping down for some high-falutin' reason (as Bayh says he is), then it is all the more imperative that you do so in such a fashion that lets the voters themselves decide who will replace you on the ticket.

For all Bayh's high-horsedness, by timing his announcement as he did, he guaranteed that the choice of his successor will increase the very partisanship he is supposedly so upset about. Either a Republican will replace him (which will definitely increase partisanship in the Senate), or a hand-picked Democrat will eke out a win (one selected by the party machine and not the voters -- pretty much the definition of a "partisan" candidate).

So for all Bayh's posturing about what a partisan, partisan town Washington is, which needs changing and reforming into some sort of centrist bipartisan utopian paradise -- he has chosen the one route which, no matter what the outcome, will guarantee even more bitterly partisan feelings in the near future.

Which is why I simply don't believe Bayh's excuses. When his crocodile tears have dried and the election is over, he will have wound up contributing to exactly what he is now decrying and beating his chest about. Bayh's exit was a giant smack in the face to the voters of Indiana, and served nobody but himself and his state's Democratic machine. In future, politicians should follow Dodd's example, and not Bayh's -- no matter what their stated reasons for leaving are. Because it is the fairest way to leave the decision where it should remain -- with the voters themselves.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


7 Comments on “Bayh's Unbelievable Exit Line”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I am against more "blue dog" dems since they are DINOs and part of the current problem. I think they should form their own parties. There needs to be more honesty about where a candidate stands on the issues and once they are elected they need to be held accountable.


  2. [2] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Evan Bayh - The soul hope for bipartisanship leaves Senate!

    The media coverage of his resignation has been absolutely atrocious. Listening to the news, you'd think he was Mother Theresa.

  3. [3] 
    Moderate wrote:

    He has been part of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) for years, which brought us the notion that if Democrats just got in bed with big corporations, then they could pull in those big campaign bucks just like the Republicans.

    Worked for Bill Clinton ;-)

    The main issue with Bayh has little to do with his ideology, but more the fact he was enjoying a 20-point lead. If the Democrats parachute in one of their Indiana Reps, that's a risky gamble to take. If it pays off, they keep both seats, if it doesn't, they could lose both. However if they don't take the gamble, whoever comes in won't enjoy the same kind of odds..

    Especially as people may feel they were cheated out of the chance to vote in the primaries by what they may perceive as a "bait and switch". As you said, the Republicans are already pushing this spin out there, and will keep doing so right up until November. It won't be comfortable for the Democrats.

    What Dodd did was precisely what Bayh should've done. Dodd's old seat is currently 99-100% likely to remain Democrat, from the polls I've seen, but Dodd would almost certainly have lost it. Bayh, on the other hand, was on track to keep his seat, and may have torpedoed his own party with this.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    For those who want Democrats to act more like Democrats..

    The PROBLEM with that is the American people, by and large, won't elect those kinds of Democrats.

    Or, to be more accurate, the American people won't RE-elect those kinds of Democrats.


  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Which kind of Democrats? Bayh, or his replacement candidate?

    Or are you speaking in general, about far left Democrats? Or Blue Dog Democrats?

    I'm confused...


  6. [6] 
    Moderate wrote:

    Chris, I think based on this line:

    For those who want Democrats to act more like Democrats..

    He meant far left "progressive" Democrats. The "real" Democrats, unlike the more moderate Bayh. I think he's right too, perversely enough the far left has much more difficulty getting elected than the far right (how many bible bashing "Religious Right" types are there in Congress? I rest my case.)

    FYI, I'm no fan of the "Religious Right" types either.

  7. [7] 
    Moderate wrote:

    Been reading some Indiana-based political blogs and in particular there was one from a Democrat who's actually concerned that Brad Ellsworth's decision, not only to run for Senate but to have Trent van Haaften run in his place, may actually cost Democrats not one, not two, but three seats.

    They reckon Ellsworth could lose the senate seat (many polling organisations now have Indiana leaning Republican in November), that van Haaften will lose Ellsworth's seat (he's a left-wing liberal running for a conservative seat and is fighting off a slew of accusations over special interests) and that van Haaften's state legislature seat could also be lost. If Bayh was unpopular before...

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