Quitting the Senate was a no-lose move for the presidentially ambitious Bayh, since he can now crawl away from the political wreckage for a couple of years, plausibly alleging that he tried to steer the party in a different direction — and then be perfectly positioned to mount a centrist primary challenge to Obama in 2012, depending on circumstances. ~Charles Lane
Lane is correct that Bayh’s retirement was calculated to do maximum damage to Obama and the Senate Democrats, but that’s what makes Lane’s speculation here so bizarre. Bayh’s decision makes a certain amount of sense if we conclude that he no longer wants to make a bid for the White House, but if he still has hopes of higher office it is madness. If Bayh thinks he is saying, “You won’t have Evan Bayh to kick around anymore” before launching a comeback presidential campaign, he is quite mistaken. Parties tend not to reward shirkers and deserters with promotion. Party politics may be infuriatingly, mind-numbingly tribal much of the time, but that is definitely something one can always rely on it to be. To retire from the field at a time when his party can’t afford to have any more vulnerable seats and then to do so without warning and at virtually the last possible minute before the filing deadline for candidates will mark him for the special loathing of progressive activists and donors for years to come. Think of how movement conservatives feel about McCain or the way progressives feel about Lieberman, and you can begin to imagine the problem Bayh faces if he ever wants a shot at his party’s nomination.
Let us also consider the implausible idea of a “centrist” primary challenge. Bear in mind that for a large number of Democratic activists and voters the current Obama administration is already far too “centrist.” They believe, and not entirely unreasonably, that Democrats are disheartened and independents disgusted because there has been far too much continuity with the last administration and far too much accommodation with entrenched interests. From their perspective, “centrist” Democrats have received far too much deference and already have far too much influence in determining the direction of the party. Many Democratic activists and voters would view a Bayh challenge to Obama in much the same way that a lot of New Yorkers view Harold Ford’s odd challenge against Gillibrand: it would be received as either an insult, a bad joke or an amazing display of arrogance.
By their nature, “centrists” tend to be out of step with their party bases, and they are usually very proud of this. It is one of their defining traits. McCain in 2000 is one example of a “centrist” who spent the entire primary season running against the core constituencies of his party. This won him a lot of media attention and enduring affection from journalists long after he found common jingoistic ground with other Republicans, but it also ensured that he never won anywhere outside of New Hampshire until he became the de facto establishment candidate and heir apparent in 2008. Howard Dean’s insurgency in 2003-04 was as successful as it was because he moved away from his reputation as a relative “centrist” and became the champion of antiwar Democrats. Does anyone think we would have been aware of Dean had he tried running to the “right” of Kerry on domestic and foreign policy?
“Centrists” do not run insurgent campaigns very well*. There are no passionate, vocal groups of voters eagerly demanding that government be more solicitous of corporate interests and more willing to start wars overseas. There are not many large voting blocs requesting the offshoring of whole industries. To be a “centrist” is necessarily to champion the interests of concentrated power and wealth and to ignore and deride as “populist” insanity anything that stands in the way of those interests. Who has ever heard of an explicitly anti-populist political insurgency? Insurgents always set themselves up as the independent outsiders who will stand up for the people against the establishment. Just imagine Bayh trying to sell himself as the establishmentarian who wants to tone down the “radicalism” of Obama’s Rubinite economics and his Clintonian hawkish foreign policy. What Lane proposes is that an old DLC-type Democrat will be positioned to win over a party that is increasingly disgusted by the overrepresentation of DLC-type Democrats in the current administration. This misreads the mood of the party and the substance of administration policy very badly.
* It is worth pointing out here that intra-party insurgencies against incumbent Presidents typically don’t succeed no matter who the insurgent is, but Democratic “centrists” typically don’t even do well in open contests for party nomination.