Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why not let Bob do it?

Note from Martha: I've found myself thinking a lot about what Evan Bayh's decision not to run for re-election to the U.S. Senate says about the way Americans undertake their political business. And to me, as WMRA's designated blogger, "thinking about" eventually means "writing about." Until I found the following essay posted on Bob Gibson's Facebook page.

Most of you probably know that Bob has been writing and reporting (for The Daily Progress) and commenting (on WINA, WVTF, WAMU) on politics since his 1972 graduation from the University of Virginia. He's also been Tom Graham's frequent guest on WMRA's Virginia Insight. Bob's current full-time occupation is Executive Director of UVa's Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership.

(On a personal note, Bob's married to Sarah McConnell, the host, doyenne, and driving force of With Good Reason. As I've known them both for 30 years and eschew formality whenever I can, I've posted Bob's Facebook picture, which is charming and shows them both.)

To get back to Bayh's resignation, once I read Bob's essay, I thought why write another one myself, when Bob's already written such a good one?

So I asked Bob Gibson if I could post his essay on the WMRA blog, and he said yes, provided I let you know it will also appear as his regular Sunday column in The Daily Progress.

What Role for Centrists?  by Bob Gibson
U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh is a centrist kind of guy in the Indiana-Virginia tradition of moderates who occasionally thrive in one party or the other.

The Indiana Democrat stunned fellow party members on Presidents' Day with his announcement that he would not seek a third Senate term on Nov. 2 at the end of a politically volatile year in which party polls have suddenly turned upside down.

2010 is an upside-down weather year in which Virginia inherited New York's snowscapes; an upside down political year in which Democrats inherited the last few years' GOP poll numbers; and a generally whacky time of rapid change driven largely by fear in economic and housing markets, uncertain about when up is really up and down is really down.

Bayh, 54, is a man caught in the middle.

Centrists, including Bayh and Virginia's pair of moderate Democrats, Jim Webb and Mark Warner, have been unable to draw both parties in the tradition-bound and prima-donna-centric Senate into coalitions able to govern from the middle.

Both parties reward the kind of team-sport and ideologically driven party bashing of the other side that makes the middle of the political road, as Texans used to brag, a place for yellow-striped, dead armadillos.

Even hungry Americans in states where roadkill is a legal food supply are not particularly attracted to armadillos, and even bold moderates can find the middle hazardous to political health when super-partisanship trumps the otherwise practical notion of compromise.

Bayh, a 1981 University of Virginia law school graduate, said he was sick of politics as blood sport, fed up with the lack of bipartisan spirit needed to allow compromise and not hopeful partisan gridlock in Washington is about to change.

A two-term governor before he became a two-term senator, Bayh has the credentials, if not the charisma, for making a national ticket. But that is a road he has been down several times as a potential vice-presidential choice; and, a little over two long years ago, as a tester of presidential waters, who found them too chilly.

Neither Indiana nor Virginia has been a prolific mother of presidents in recent years despite efforts by former governors Chuck Robb, Doug Wilder, George Allen, Jim Gilmore and Mark Warner to order up periodic pregnancy tests.

Since the late John Dalton was governor from 1978 to 1982, the only Virginia chief executives not to publicly check the status of the Old Dominion's presidential womb were Govs. Gerry Baliles and Tim Kaine, and Kaine did a quite public vice-presidential pregnancy test.

There may be no womb for moderates, despite the once more commonly held belief that governing from the center is the smart way to put together lasting coalitions.

For Bayh to try again for the White House, the subject of some speculation since he declared he was more an executive type of guy than a lover of legislatures, he might recast himself as an outsider to the Congress and a radical centrist.

He could try to ride a popular centrist agenda to tackle short-term job problems and long-term fiscal messes.

Nothing changes faster than change in our nation's political life and fortunes these days.

One day a politician can be a tiger, tigress or hunk in the game of celebrity political roller derby played daily in different cable flavors, but the next he or she can be a washed-up hulk. Richard Nixon was the incredible hulk who bulked back up and returned to rule and then to ruin.

The inability of both political parties to face up to long-term problems is not changing, unless it's worsening. Bayh sought entitlement reform and deficit reduction, which was undone by short-term partisan power jockeying.

A fitness fanatic who once had a union job in Washington during college summers building the Metro rail system, he knew the dangers of touching a third rail and risking political electrocution. His father was a senator, so he knew the job's roles.

What he would have liked to have changed is the role and definition of moderate. Instead of being disrespected and run over, centrists could be operating in the public interest as respected bipartisan craft masters of the compromise he believed is needed to solve longer term problems.

In congressional time, there's always plenty of time for partisan campaigning, but what Congress has not found time for in a while is bipartisan discussion and action that gets much more than lip service.

Bayh is still young and his time may still be in the future. Or, he may be the Senate's latest member in both parties to leave office frustrated by a system that rewards and empowers the party purists who pummel the other side hard and fast on everything, consequential or not.

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