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Tuesday, February 16, 2010  

If This is a Joke, I'm Not Laughing

Yglesias flags Charles Lane and Josh Marshall flags a correspondent talking up the possibility of an Evan Bayh presidential run in the wake of his late departure from the 2010 election. This is the kind of thing Evan Bayh, whose ego exponentially exceeds his intelligence, might actually believe. It is not coincidentally the kind of thing sensible centrist journalists, who despite always getting everything wrong manage to blame everyone who wasn't responsible, find utterly hypnotic.

Needless to say, this will not happen. Oh, Bayh might raise the Harold Ford banner and make a go at Obama in 2012 or keep his powder dry for 2016--time always being the friend of the well-coiffed politician who has spent more time chasing media exposure than building a constituency or a policy profile. But if he breaks 15% in any national polls either time, I'll buy David Broder an Irish Car Bomb.

The reason for this is fairly simple: there is no room in the Democratic Party to the right of Barack Obama. This is not because Obama's own instincts aren't reasonably progressive. It's because from the start, the president made a choice to target his policy proposals at the 60th most liberal U.S. Senator. This meant creating a stimulus small enough to poach a few Republican votes and ineffective enough to get the monumentally self-important Ben Nelson on board. It meant pitching a health care reform approach that left a massive (and subsidized) role for private insurers, a rather bare basket of guaranteed coverage, and so forth, so that even the most timid Democrat could vote for it. As, indeed, Evan Bayh has already done.

For all the centrist Democratic hemming and hawing about partisanship and the need for moderation, it's been those people who have been in the driver's seat all along. They've been in a position to dictate terms to the administration and they haven't been shy about doing it. As a result, all the big-ticket items the White House has tried to get through have come pre-approved by none other than Evan Bayh. Charles Lane's ear might be finely tuned to the pitch of Bayh's perpetual whine, but the man has nothing at all to complain about. If there is any niche for a 2012 primary challenge, it's on the left--the people who have felt burned by all the attention and flexibility brought to bear in soothing the delicate sensibilities of Bayh, Nelson, and the rest.

It's worth pointing out that this didn't have to be so. Obama could have tried from the start to get Democratic leadership on board with using budget reconciliation more aggressively. He could have publicly denounced the abuse of the filibuster and worked with his allies to lay the groundwork for a "nuclear option" in the Senate. He could have played an outside game, trying to bring public pressure to bear on recalcitrant Democrats like Evan Bayh. Maybe that would have been more effective and maybe not, but either way there would be some room between where Obama was pitching his proposals--Democratic Senator #50--and Bayh. But that isn't what we got. Instead we got an inside game, focused entirely on keeping Evan Bayh on board with whatever the White House was trying to do. So there is no available room and no conceivable rationale for a Bayh presidential run in 2012. By 2016, no one will care who he is or what he wants to do.

All the same, a degree of "Unity '08"-style media fascination is likely to follow Bayh around for a while. This represents one of the most annoying tics of the establishment media, whose default position is to blame bad things on "the extremes" and look for salvation in "the center." Looking at our current problems, however, it's reasonably clear that "the center" is exactly where the blame lies. The Iraq War, a costly and on-going boondoggle, was an almost perfect establishment-centrist product. The plan was of far-right origin, but it was franchised by all the respectable media outlets and adopted wholesale by centrists like Bayh. The Bush-era tax cuts, which have done so much to create the deficits we are supposedly supposed to get so serious about now, were cheered along by Max Baucus and Alan Greenspan. Our impasse with Iran and our sour relationship with Russia both represent the results of decades of sensible moderate thinking on those countries. The financial crisis and resulting recession were the culmination of the long work of a bipartisan financial-sector combine that bewitched both Clinton and Bush II administrations.

In most of these things, Evan Bayh has been eagerly complicit, along with all his friends and admirers in the sensible center. To paraphrase Cedric Daniels, he's the kind of senator who would rather live in a world of manure than let anyone see him holding a shovel. That is one of the many, many ways in which Bayh is the most typical possible member of the Washington power elite.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:03 AM
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