About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Remembering President Washington | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | The Return of ObamaCare, Part 1: The Legislative Context »

On Evan Bayh's Retirement

I'll take Senator Bayh at his word that he is sick and tired of partisan politics in Washington, D.C. Still, I do think that his electoral situation had a great deal to do with his decision to retire. Whether he was bound to win or lose in November, he was sure to face a nasty reelection fight, one that would have focused squarely on him. That's a tough prospect for anybody - and if your heart is not in it, it's a good time to retire.

And I do think it's a retirement, not a preparatory move for the presidency. First, you don't tell people you're sick of politics if you plan to run for President. Second, I think it's highly unlikely that Bayh could ever actually win the Democratic nomination - and I think he knows it. He has been in Indiana politics for a quarter century. That requires a level of political moderation that would make him a tough sell for progressives and labor unions.

I think it is fair to say that this retirement is a recent decision on the part of Senator Bayh. When you look at the roll call votes on health care reform in December, Bayh was voting with the Republicans on a series of amendments, like the Gregg Amendment, "to prevent Medicare from being raided for new entitlements and to use Medicare savings to save Medicare." That's the kind of vote you take when you're looking to inoculate yourself for an electoral campaign. Only three Democrats voted with Republicans on that amendment: Bayh, Ben Nelson, and Jim Webb.

Still, Bayh's problem is that he was set to be on the hook for several unpopular votes. Obviously, there was health care reform. He also voted for the stimulus bill. Republicans are certainly running on the debt this year, which is why the votes to raise the debt ceiling - a necessary move - were party line votes. Bayh would thus have to answer for voting with his party on the federal debt limit.

Bayh has a reputation in the Senate as a moderate, and by contemporary standards that is a fair characterization. He's also more moderate than his father. Yet he has not been exempt from the process of increasing legislative polarization. Thus, he and other moderates like Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, and Mark Pryor are not really centrists in the strictest sense of the word. They're to the left of center. Susan Collins, Nelson, and Olympia Snowe are the only true centrists left in the upper chamber. Bayh was a good bit to their left.

And his problem, of course, was that thanks to the legislative strategy designed by his party's leadership, he was obliged to support them as the critical vote over and over. Nancy Pelosi could always allow up to 40 vulnerable House Democrats to defect from the tough votes, but there was no such luxury in the Senate. Absent bipartisan cooperation, Reid could not suffer a defection on any major item - which meant Bayh had to vote with the party every time. That might not have been a problem in other cycles, but in this one it was going to be a big one.

Could Bayh have won in November? Yes, but it was no certainty. If 2010 turns out to be a "GOP Wave" - Bayh is exactly the kind of candidate you'd see go down, even though the most formidable GOP opponents, e.g. Mitch Daniels, declined to challenge him. So, there was a decent chance he would lose. And a victory would probably be narrow, and it would follow a brutal campaign focused squarely on Evan Bayh.

At this point, the House electoral landscape is not quite as dramatic as what we're seeing in the Senate - but I take the Senate to be a leading indicator of the House. Senators are higher profile, and states are more easily polled than congressional districts. The fact that the Senate landscape looks so bad for the Democrats now - with 10 of 18 Democrat-held seats rated "Lean Democrat" or worse according to Charlie Cook - is a sign that the GOP will be very strong in House elections, too. We'll probably see the House picture take shape later in the year. If it mimics the Senate, the Democrats are going to be in for a very rough November.

Follow me now on Twitter!

-Jay Cost