Commentary Magazine


Bayh the Way, You Guys Haven’t Done Anything

Try as they might to spin the Evan Bayh retirement as a sign of the generic failure of the political system or the nation’s ungovernability, the Democrats are seething. They aren’t thrilled that as gave the media yet another “Democrats in Distress!” headline, Bayh also handed the Republicans a pre-made political ad campaign. Politico reports: “In explaining his decision not to seek reelection, the Indiana Democrat has complained publicly about legislative gridlock, saying that Congress hasn’t done enough to prop up the economy and hasn’t created a single private-sector job in the past six months.”

Oops. Well, that’s certainly not going to help matters. Indeed, Democrats can’t understand why Bayh is dumping on them, as opposed to, you know, blaming the minority party for the nation’s woes:

“I just have no idea what he’s doing,” said one Democratic senator, whose face turned red as he threw up his hands after being asked about Bayh.

“We get some of the blame; we moved a little too slowly on health care,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “My only disappointment, and the only thing I’ll say about Sen. Bayh, is that I think a more accurate portrayal by him was how Republicans have tried to block everything that we’ve done.”

“It almost seems like he’s siding with” Republicans, said one top Democratic aide.

There are a few explanations for why Bayh is twisting the knife. Some think he’s out to build support for a 2012 primary challenge. Blaming Obama and the unpopular congressional leadership is one way to establish his challenger credentials. Yes, yes, Bayh was part of the Beltway establishment, but criticizing the leadership and the president is one way to establish a rationale for his own candidacy. A more immediate explanation for the dump-on-the-Democrats gambit is that Bayh is enjoying the limelight, relishing the media’s focus on the “Why is Obama failing?” storyline. He supplies a good answer: because they haven’t addressed voters’ most pressing issue.

But the real explanation, I think, is that Bayh is now free to speak his mind and tell the truth. It must be liberating not to have to spin the unspinnable tale of the stimulus plan’s success in creating all those jobs. After all the Democrats’ huffing and puffing, Bayh walked back his comment that if Obama could “create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months.” But there is no walking back his central message — this president and the Democratic Congress haven’t gotten much done on the issue that matters most to voters. (“South Dakota Sen. John Thune, No. 4 in GOP leadership, said Bayh’s comments were a ‘validation of what we’ve been saying’ — that the economic stimulus package and the Democratic Congress have failed to create jobs.”) And indeed, Bayh again stomped on his colleagues’ message, declaring that “some Democrats’ comments about the legislature’s productivity ‘show a major disconnect [between] what goes on in Washington and what goes on in the rest of the country.’”

Republicans are likely licking their chops, with visions of that Evan Bayh commercial whacking the Democrats. But really, Bayh is simply saying what pretty much every non-Kool-Aid drinker knows: the Democrats have been spectacularly unsuccessful in doing what voters want them to do, and instead have spent their time on something — a monstrous health-care bill — that voters don’t want. Bayh or no Bayh, Democrats are going to have a hard time making the case that voters should send them back to do more of the same.