The narcissism of Evan Bayh and the Senate centrists

Screw off, you princes of the Senate, you kings of the conventional wisdom

Topics: Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Media Criticism, U.S. Senate

In the wake of Evan Bayh’s pouty decision to leave Washington because of all the icky partisanship, the already escalating “Obama promised us bipartisanship and has failed to deliver” meme has flown into high gear.

Check out this beauty, from Mark Halperin:

Can Obama Rebuild Bipartisan Trust in Washington?

… Despite the President’s paramount campaign promise to end the bitter recriminations and partisan animus that have defined Washington politics for almost two decades, genuine feelings of friendship across the aisle rarely animate the contours of the debate in Barack Obama’s Washington.

Obama once appeared exceedingly well qualified to change the tone in Washington. He came armed with his résumé of bipartisan efforts in the Illinois state senate and in Congress, his balanced, unflappable temperament and his instinctual and biographical remove from the acidic Washington ethos. And Obama seemed to believe that, fundamentally, the system needed changing. He argued that securing real solutions to the biggest challenges confronting America — health care, energy, global warming, education — required legislators and citizens of all political stripes to contribute to and endorse the programs meant to solve them. Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama didn’t emphasize detailed “third way” policy ideas. Rather, he simply posited that well-meaning people of both parties could work together in good faith to find resolutions in the nation’s interest.

Yet, as a candidate, Obama was never very specific about those policy ideas and was scarcely tested by the media. Once in the White House, faced with a towering heap of problems, cosseted by a Democratic majority and confronted by a hostile Republican crowd, Obama cast his lot with a legislative strategy reliant on getting overwhelming support from Democrats, at the expense of building bipartisan coalitions and forming solid relationships with the opposition.

He goes on to advise the president that all he needs to do now is get the Republican poobahs in a room together and appeal to them to work with him for the good of the country. This solution is always considered common sense among numerous important players and observers, such as George W. Bush:



Blair said Rice has “got to succeed” if she goes to the region. Bush replied: “What they need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit.

And then there’s John McCain:

“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,’”

Easy as can be.

Actually, it’s possible that if Obama agrees to pass the GOP agenda, preferably without as few Democratic votes as possible, they might even agree to help him (although that’s a long shot too.) But short of that, I think the “stop the bullshit” approach isn’t going to get him very far.

It’s not surprising that Halperin is throwing Obama’s campaign promise back in his face. It’s entirely predictable that they would blame him for failing to magically force the Republicans to become different people. But it’s also Obama’s fault for having promised such a thing in the first place. He handed the Republicans the weapon with which to beat him by promising something that required their cooperation. I’m not sure I ever understood that particular approach except that it was a very nice way to use the symbolism of his historic campaign to give the impression that he had powers to do things that ordinary mortals do not have.

But I have to admit that the “he failed to make us cooperate” theme is even more clever than it seems at first blush. Aside from making Obama look like a failure for being unable to deliver Republican votes, it masks another, more important problem: it isn’t just a lack of bipartisanship that caused the gridlock; it is also a lack of partisanship, particularly in the Senate where “centrist” egomaniacs hold Democrats hostage. And by the way, they have been doing so for a good long time. I wrote this back in 2008 during the embarrassing “Unity 08″ boomlet, knowing full well that this was going to be the problem:

David Broder loves David Boren and Bob Kerrey and thinks the country is best served by rabid conservative ideologues and preening Democratic narcissists who lay down for Republicans and fight their own president every step of the way if he wants to enact any kind of progressive legislation. That’s called “getting things done.”

Bayh is complaining about the nastiness of the liberal blogs as his reason for taking his ball and going home, and I think that’s probably a real issue for him. These Democratic Senate egomaniacs are a huge problem and they are being called on it. They see their role in America’s patrician institution as protecting the rightful owners of America from the Democratic rabble that elected them. And so does the elite political and media establishment at large, which in turn protects them. When they are actually held up to scrutiny for playing such a role, they get very angry. How dare anyone, much less the dirty liberal rabble, question their judgment and their integrity. Their response is to leave the field and turn their seats over to a similarly compromised Democrat or a Republican to teach the Democrats a lesson — a lesson which the Dems have so internalized that they reflexively run in fear of offending conservative Democrats without even questioning it.

This isn’t a bipartisan problem, by the way. The owners allow Snowe and Collins off the leash from time to time to provide cover for something that needs to be done to calm the markets. But other than that this band of aristocratic centrists of both parties have but one role to play and that is to thwart the liberal economic agenda and advance conservative initiatives whenever they are needed. The problem is that this game is being publicly discussed and there is now a (small) price to pay — the village media isn’t the only game in town anymore and there are voices that embarrass the poor sensitive darlings when they “follow their conscience” and obstruct progress for ordinary people. This is very upsetting to them.

So, yes, there is a problem with this bipartisan fetish inside the Beltway. The parties and the country are ideologically polarized and this means that politics aren’t a genteel pursuit best decided over scotch and cigars among like-minded nobility. But people must also be aware that these “centrists” are false flag conservatives and any discussion of the partisan make-up of the Senate needs to account for their position as de facto Republicans. It’s much better to wage this ideological war with a proper troop count, knowing which side everyone is really on.

Update: Michael Bérubé has obtained an exclusive dispatch from the bizarroworld reality based community on this subject. If only we could all live there.

Update II: Matthews had on a couple of these corporate “centrists” William Cohen and John Breaux, whining and moping about the horrible people on the left and right who are ruining just everything.

Breaux made this boilerplate assertion:

I would say to the people on the far right and the far left, you don’t represent a majority of the people of this country. And this is a government by a majority. If you become the majority, then you can become the majority view. But you’re not in the majority. We’ll listen to you, but we have to govern and you have to govern from the center.

Does this “center” really have a majority in the Congress? I don’t think so. “The center” as they define it is, as far as I can tell, no more than a quarter of Congress at most, and far fewer if you want to use the legislation proposed this year to measure it. This is a total fallacy. The majority votes for individual politicians for the House and the Senate, they vote for a party’s political platform and for a president. Every politician has to decide for him or herself how to interpret what that means. Automatically rushing to the “center” (defined, by the way, as equidistant between Barack Obama and Michelle Bachman) is a lazy and stupid way to interpret the majority will (and, not incidentally, a very convenient way to keep conservatives in power.)

If what Breaux says is correct, then the Democrats should a pass Barack Obama’s agenda, period. He and Joe Biden are the only individuals in the government a majority of people in this country voted for. (Now, I actually would call him a centrist too, but I’m guessing that Breaux would have been right beside Nelson in torpedoing even the approved tepid, corporate friendly health care plan that finally emerged from months of coddling the handful of bipartisan “centrists” who worked to defeat it.) But then when these Senate narcissists look in the mirror they see a president too, so it’s natural that they would see the true manifestation of the will of the majority as — themselves.

"Digby" is a writer whose political and cultural observations can be found at www.digbysblog.blogspot.com.

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