What is the non-partisan Congress of which Evan Bayh dreams?

As James Burnham wrote in his important 1943 book, The Machiavellians, to understand the statements of political men we must distinguish between the formal meaning of a political statement and its real meaning. Thus the formal meaning of that famous “non-partisanship” of which Evan Bayh of Indiana speaks so fondly is a civil and congenial political process in which the people’s representatives put their heads together and come up with the best policies for the national good. But the real meaning of Bayh’s “non-partisan” ideal, which he conceals from us (and which he may not even be explicitly aware of himself, as it would be too wounding to his amour propre) is something else entirely. In a brief, punchy piece in today’s Washington Examiner Byron York reveals the real meaning hidden behind Bayh’s formal meaning.

Evan Bayh longs for the days of total Democratic domination

In today’s New York Times, Sen. Evan Bayh explains his decision to quit the Senate. Part of the reason is—the Senate just ain’t what it used to be. “While romanticizing the Senate of yore would be a mistake, it was certainly better in my father’s time,” Bayh writes.

My father, Birch Bayh, represented Indiana in the Senate from 1963 to 1981. A progressive, he nonetheless enjoyed many friendships with moderate Republicans and Southern Democrats.

One incident from his career vividly demonstrates how times have changed. In 1968, when my father was running for re-election, Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader, approached him on the Senate floor, put his arm around my dad’s shoulder, and asked what he could do to help. This is unimaginable today.

One reason that scene is unimaginable today is that in the 1960s Washington was a one-party capital in ways that it is not now. When Dirksen put his arm around the elder Bayh’s shoulder, there were 64 Democrats in the Senate. The session before, from 1965 to 1967, there were 68 Democrats. In fact, for the decade from 1959 to 1969, there were never fewer than 64 Democrats in the Senate. The party controlled the House by similarly huge margins (in 1966, there were 295 Democrats in the House), and of course occupied the White House from 1961 to 1969. Beyond that, media coverage of politics was controlled by the Washington Post, New York Times, CBS and NBC—outlets mostly friendly to the party in power, with no talk radio, no Internet, and no Fox News. There wasn’t just one-party rule in Dirksen’s and Bayh’s time; there was one-party domination. Republicans mostly went along, not making a lot of trouble.

Now, even though one party controls the levers of power in Washington at the moment, there’s not the same domination. And when things are competitive, they are … competitive. Parties maneuver and struggle for advantage. That’s just the way it works. In the long run, the result is undoubtedly better than the one-party domination of the 1960s, from which the political system has spent decades trying to recover. It’s best for both parties that the Senate not return to the halcyon days of Birch Bayh and Everett Dirksen.

[end of York article]

I sent this to Mr. York:

I just read your piece on why the Senate in the ’60s was such a wonderful place for the likes of Birch Bayh. It made an impact on me. I should have known/remembered, but didn’t, that the Democrats never had fewer than 64 seats in the Senate all through that decade.

Great minds think alike. See the piece I posted yesterday on Saint Evan. In the key paragraph, beginning, “So here is what I think Bayh’s unhappiness with ‘partisanship’ is really about.” you will see how similar are our views of Bayh’s thought process.

- end of initial entry -

Clark Coleman writes:

I am not sure I agree with this thesis. While Evan Bayh might have mentioned an incident from his father’s era, he has never been Senator in such an era. The Senate has been competitive since the 1970s. Republicans seized a majority in 1980.

I think the difference is the exact opposite. As Dick Morris pointed out recently, fake moderates among the Democrats are being smoked out by other Democrats. They have to vote yes or no on the whole radical Democratic agenda, which is being advanced because the Democrats were emboldened by having the White House and huge majorities in both houses of Congress. In the nearly 50-50 split of the Bush years, Evan Bayh could still sell himself as a moderate, and the Democrats were not able to threaten to destroy the whole society, arousing enormous grass roots opposition.

LA replies:

If what you mean by, “fake moderates among the Democrats are being smoked out by other Democrats,” is that the moderates, in being forced to move left by their fellow Democrats, are being shown not to be moderates at all, then I think that that is not different from the Auster/York view. Bayh doesn’t like the nastiness, ruthlessness, and partisanship of the Democrats. He wants the left program put through, without the nastiness and partisanship. Then he’d be happy. But as things are now, he is forced to be part of a Democratic party that is nasty and partisan.

However, I see a problem with what I just said. How is it compatible with the idea that he supports passing health care via reconciliation, which is about as nasty as it gets?

Clark Coleman replies:

My point is that Democrats rarely vote on huge measures like HillaryCare and ObamaCare, and when they do, it always gets ugly, regardless of whether they have a bare majority in the Senate (in 1994) or 60 votes (today).

When Clinton lost on that one, he did not attempt anything nearly as controversial for the remainder of his administration. The problem today is that the Democrats were trying a “first hundred days” strategy of Stimulus/Porkulus, ObamaCare, Cap and Trade, Second Stimulus, etc. They were emboldened to do this by the large majorities they have.

So, we have three possible types of Democratic majority:

1) So big they do whatever they want.

2) So big they think they can do whatever they want, but find they cannot quite.

3) A pretty bare majority, when they have the sense to know they cannot do so much.

You and York were basically saying that Bayh finds himself in situation 2 and longs for situation 1. I was pointing out that Bayh has always been in situation 3 his whole life. His father might have been in situation 1, but he never has, so why would the lack of situation 1 today cause him to leave? That makes no sense. He should have left six years ago by that logic.

In situation 3, as Dick Morris pointed out, fake moderates can pass incremental liberalism without ever being smoked out as fakes, no one tries radical left-liberalism, the fake moderates get to be saints, their constituents are hoodwinked and keep voting for them, etc. When situation 3 turns into situation 2, it is not the Bayhs who suddenly propose ObamaCare by reconciliation, Cap and Trade, etc. It is Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and all the others who never pretended to be moderates, because they are emboldened by the new large majority. They do not realize that they are putting the Bayhs of the world on the hot seat. Pelosi can propose outright communism and get re-elected in her district, so she has no caution. The situation is different for the “moderate” Democrats.

This is the situation that is now intolerable for Blanche Lincoln, Evan Bayh, etc. Sure, Bayh might vote for reconciliation now that he is not facing re-election, but those like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu are not happy with what Pelosi and Reid and the late Ted Kennedy have been doing.

Tim W. writes:

I had to laugh when I read Evan Bayh’s anecdote about Senator Dirksen offering to help his father win re-election in 1968. I have no doubt that it’s true, as Dirksen made a career out of capitulating to the Democrats. The question is, did Birch Bayh ever put his arm around a conservative Republican and offer to help him win re-election? Of course he didn’t. Birch Bayh was a fiercely partisan leftist Democrat who worked with Republicans who came over to his side. He never went over to theirs.

When Ted Kennedy passed away a few months back, pundits galore opined about how he often worked with Republicans over the years. They contrasted this “bipartisanship” with the current Senate filled with partisan divisions. But Kennedy never once worked with Republicans. They worked with him. Ted never once crossed the aisle to help pass a piece of conservative legislation. His bipartisanship consisted of welcoming Dirksen’s support of the Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Immigration Bill, accepting Nixon’s implementation of affirmative action proposals and the EPA, huddling with George W. Bush to pass an education boondoggle, and hugging McCain, Graham, and Co. when they endorsed amnesty.

It’s the relative absence of this type of capitulation in the present Senate which upsets Evan Bayh. He wishes that twenty or so Republicans had endorsed ObamaCare, so that it passed 80-20. A bipartisan majority easily passing “historic” legislation opposed only by the “far right” minority, just like in his father’s day.

February 22

LA replies to Clark Coleman:

This is all interesting and well-reasoned, but could you boil it down to your main point, because at the moment I’m no longer sure what the issue is between us.

Clark Coleman replies:

If Evan Bayh cannot stand anything less than a huge Democratic super-majority like his father had, then he should have left the Senate in frustration years ago. He has been there 11 years, and the Senate was never very far from 50-50 for the first ten of those 11 years.

I think the more accurate explanation for his frustration is that, for those first ten years, 1999-2008, the radical leftist element of the Democratic delegation (Pelosi/Reid et al.) were not bold enough to propose radical legislation that would force the fake moderates to vote yes or no. A no vote is difficult for party and ideological reasons. A yes vote destroys their moderate facade and removes the wool from their constituents’ eyes.

This was Dick Morris’s point when he said that the current administration and Congress would be the end of “moderate” Democrats entirely, because now the radicals are emboldened (60 votes in Senate, 63 percent of the House, Obama in the White House). They are repeatedly forcing the Evan Bayhs of the Congress to vote yes or no on Stimulus, Stimulus II, Cap and Trade, and then ObamaCare in various forms, over and over, with each form equally objectionable to the majority of Americans. The choice facing Evan Bayh, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, et al, is: Vote yes and face the wrath of voters, vote no and face the wrath of your party and its activists and donors, or leave. The choice they don’t have is to sail along, passing non-controversial incremental liberalism, and pretending to be “moderate” or even “conservative” Democrats for the benefit of their constituents. Those days are over.

LA replies:

Ok, then your argument comes down to this:

Contrary to what Byron York and I said, Bayh is not a left-liberal who desires unobstructed left-liberal rule. He is a moderate liberal who would like to pass incremental, moderate liberal legislation in a bi-partisan manner with Republican support. But the empowerment of the radical left as a result of the overwhelming Democratic majorities forces Bayh either to vote for radical legislation that he dislikes or else become an apostate to his party. He doesn’t want to do either of those things, so he’s leaving. He’s leaving because he’s a moderate who doesn’t want to be a part of a radical agenda.

That’s interesting, but there is a weakness in your thesis, which is this:

The reality is that up to this point Bayh HAS voted for radical legislation. He voted FOR the porkulus, he voted FOR cloture on Obamacare, he voted FOR Obamacare, and he has even said he supports passing Obamacare via the illegitimate, unlawful, and revolutionary means of budget reconciliation.

So, for the entire first year of Obama’s presidency, Bayh chose to vote with his radical left party, and he gave no sign that he was planning to leave the Senate. Why then has he decided now to leave the Senate? The most compelling inference is that he is leaving the Senate because the election of Scott Brown and the rising tide against Obamism mean that the Obama agenda, which Bayh has so far supported, can no longer be passed. Therefore it appears that Bayh is leaving, not because he is ia moderate who doesn’t want to be pushed to the left, but because (a) he is a leftist (in moderate clothing) who is frustrated by the Republicans’ ability to block the Democrats’s leftist agenda, and (b) the stand-off has exacerbated the partisan virulence in the Senate, whereas his preference is a Senate that passes leftist bills in a collegial rather than a confrontational manner, as strongly suggested by his fond memory of the total Democratic dominance in the 1960s. However, it would appear that factor (a) supercedes factor (b), as shown by Bayh’s support for the uber confrontational use of budget reconciliation as a way of passing healthcare. Faced with a choice between giving up Obama’s radical agenda because the country opposes it, and pushing that agenda through AGAINST the country’s wishes, he chose the latter. To me, this demonstrates that his fundamental adherence is to left-liberalism, not to moderate liberalism.

LA writes:

Correction: Mr. Coleman is not saying that Bayh is a moderate liberal; I was incorrect to say that he was saying that. But what he is saying, I honestly am having trouble understanding.

Joseph C. writes:

I do not now and never have considered Evan Bayh a centrist. While I have always heard him described as such by the (mostly left-wing) media, where is the actual evidence of his centrism? Is it his polished appearance? His tone of voice? The fact that he comes from a conservative state and just has to be a centrist. Or is just that he a few steps to the right of Nancy Pelosi?

A polite tone is important, because even those with differing opinions should maintain civil discourse. But at the end of the day, our laws are not made by tone of voice, professional attire, and a congenial personality. The only thing that really counts is how a person actually votes when the chips are down.

Everyone can have an opinion on what kind of person Evan Bayh is, but there is no doubt regarding the facts. Evan Bayh has a 100 percent rating from the NARAL, the most extreme proponents of gratuitous killing in America. He voted against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. He is a die hard supporter of eminent domain. He has never stood up to the teachers’ unions. He voted against confirming John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez for Attorney General and both John Roberts and Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. These votes are part of the record. Importantly, none of them were decisive; all measures/candidates passed (or failed) with comfortable majorities, so he was not making any difference by doing his party’s bidding.

Contrary to media claims, Bayh is nothing more than a doctrinaire liberal. The partisanship he detests is the partisanship in the media, which is now better able to shine a light on his voting record. The days he longs for are the days when he could talk one talk at home, walk another walk in Washington, and not have to answer for the difference between the two.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 21, 2010 06:15 PM | Send

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