After some consideration, I am persuaded by the commenters who objected to my claim that Bayh’s retirement was hard to imagine without Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. Brown’s election may have been a factor in Bayh’s decision, but I definitely overstated its importance. So that isn’t why I’m pairing the two of them in this post. It occurred to me while reading Ross’ recent post on “the emptiness of Evan Bayh” that Bayh today is likely to be what Scott Brown will become in the future, which is to say that he will become a dull, predictable “centrist” mostly interested in splitting the difference between the two parties on domestic policy while adhering to a conventional hawkish line on foreign policy.
One of the frequent themes of Brown’s campaign and his post-election rhetoric has been the complaint that there is not enough cooperation in Washington. This was also Bayh’s stated reason for retiring. It is remarkable how the same vague, maddening fluff can be used by the supposed outsider who is bringing “change” to Washington and by the bored insider who claims to have lost interest in working in Washington. It is a little amusing that the net effect of both Brown’s win and Bayh’s retirement has been to make the cooperation both claim to want even less likely.
We have heard this complaint from “moderates” and “centrists” for years, even though in practice it is the “moderates” and “centrists” who frequently act as the gatekeepers of what can and cannot be done in Congress. They stall, delay, extract concessions, and otherwise do their best to make the ugly sausage-making of legislating even less attractive, and then when legislation stalls they throw up their hands and blame the ideological poles for legislative failure. They hold a disproportionate share of the real power in Congress, but accept none of the responsibility for the results they create. Perversely, they feed on the public’s dissatisfaction with ineffective government and then do all they can to contribute to making government more dysfunctional.
Because they are relatively marginal within their own parties (a position they draw attention to whenever they can as a point of pride), they can play the part of persecuted dissident opposing the majority of their fellow partisans. This helps to obscure that they are even more in hock to the Washington establishment and more aligned with the prevailing consensus views than anyone else. They do this because they have a very tenuous relationship with their own party bases and must seek the favor and approval of national media to build themselves up. As “independent-minded centrists,” they are even less representative of their constituents than the regular partisans they deride. The centrists’ alleged pragmatism and general lack of strong convictions (at least on domestic policy) continually put them in a position to exercise maximal leverage even when one party commands super-majorities in both houses, and it is their reputation for unscrupulous dealmaking that somehow affords them the media’s attention and respect as “independent” or, God help us, “maverick” members.
“Centrists” typically thrive by being non-threatening to powerful interests at home. This translates into a ready defense of the status quo in most cases, occasionally punctuated by bouts of “reform” efforts that often work to the advantage of large corporate interests. These “reform” efforts sometimes involve breaking with rank-and-file partisans, which reinforces the false notion that these “centrists” are independent and unusually concerned about the public interest. We saw this with McCain on immigration and Lieberman on health care. As I was arguing last month, a status quo conservatism is precisely the kind of politics Scott Brown practices. Where they are also quite beholden to powerful interests is their complete and abject loyalty to the national security state, which finds expression in their support for confrontational foreign policy, aggressive military actions, expansive surveillance and detention policies and acquiescence to executive power grabs.
The dangerous and foolish gasoline sanctions bill now before the Senate was co-sponsored by Bayh, and we can expect that Brown will follow the lead of his mentors, McCain and Lieberman, in backing this and other destructive, counterproductive measures. Brown made a major issue over the handling of Abdulmutallab, insisting on a military tribunal to try him. Taken together with his other statements and the allies he has chosen in Washington, we can see that Brown is on his way to filling the void that Bayh will be leaving behind.