Saying Bayh to the Third Way

Published February 25, 2010

The retirement of Indiana Senator Evan Bayh marks the end of an era in national politics—and may be emblematic of what might have been had President Barack Obama chosen a different approach to governance.

Bayh was one of the last remaining senators who viewed political centrism as a compliment, not a slur, one of a bevy of Democratic politicians who emerged during the Clinton presidency and avoided leftist policy extremes. With fellow Democrats such as Clinton, John Breaux, Tom Vilsack, Joe Lieberman, and Mark Warner, Bayh rejected the idea that the market is inherently vile and big government inherently virtuous. Working with pro-market Republicans, these “good government” Democrats presided over economic growth, trade expansion, and the most meaningful domestic policy step in a generation: welfare reform.

In today’s monopartisan Washington, however, the lessons of these moderates and the only two-term Democratic presidency in the last half-century seem to be completely and purposefully ignored. It is impossible to imagine Obama saying with any honesty that “the era of big government is over,” much less pursuing policies reflecting that conclusion. When it came to health care policy, Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill rejected every lesson learned from the failures of earlier Democratic attempts at reform.

Obama could have kept his promises of transparency and guided Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi toward gradual but meaningful centrist legislation. He could have supported a package of key reforms designed to aid small businesses and consumers, giving Americans more freedom while lowering costs through the competitive marketplace, not price controls. Such legislation would have received not just one or two token Republican votes but a significant percentage of them, and it could’ve been worked out in a matter of months.

Instead, Obama chose to embrace the extreme, giving Reid and Pelosi his blessing to manufacture an unprecedented socialized expansion of entitlement spending and government power, assembled in back rooms through deals, kickbacks, and threats.

The Democratic Party’s progressive base reviled Bayh for his common sense and saw him as a traitor to his cause. Despite plenty of money in his campaign account and little opposition back home, he’d had enough. Whether it was the attacks from the left, the disastrous mismanagement of the health care legislation and jobs bill, or just one too many arguments with out-of-touch leadership within his party, Bayh finally knocked the dust off his feet and said goodbye.

The progressives reacted to the news with their typical level of self-examination: zero. “Good riddance to Evan Bayh,” declared within hours of his announcement, while Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic called the resignation “an extraordinary act of selfishness.” Reid and the White House may take solace in these reactions, but they also should consider that these same powerful minds spent several years blaming George W. Bush for the weather.

Today, centrist Democrats with any power are few and far between in Washington. Less than a decade after serving as vice presidential nominee, Lieberman was driven out of his party. Vilsack, once thought to be vice presidential material, is stuck at the Agriculture Department, and Warner and his moderate Virginia Senate colleague Jim Webb are routinely castigated by the left for their positions on offshore drilling and business issues. The once-prominent Democratic Leadership Council, which Bayh chaired for four years, is now led by Harold Ford Jr., who does not even hold elected office.

The country deserves two parties that negotiate respectfully in good faith, adopt proven pro-market reforms, and govern always with a mind toward the increase of freedom. We should applaud Bayh for his career, and hope more in his party follow his example in the future, rejecting the disastrous, self-destructive games played by their leadership today for what they are: purposeful perversions of representative democracy.

Benjamin Domenech ([email protected]), a former political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, is managing editor of Health Care News.