February 20, 2010


Evan Bayh, Tough Chooser: Another senator who’s too good for Washington. (Andrew Ferguson, March 1, 2010, Weekly Standard)

The last rash of Tough Choosing politicians appeared in the 1990s: Senators Bill Bradley, Paul Tsongas, Warren Rudman, a handful of others. They fashioned themselves “raging moderates” or “radical centrists,” hoping that the oxymorons would sound ironic and provocative rather than nonsensical. They were neither ideological nor partisan, they said; they were problem solvers, pragmatic idealists and idealistic pragmatists. And they were sick at heart over the government’s deficit and its inability to make the tough choices that would bring the federal budget into balance.

So they all quit. “Politics is broken,” said Bradley upon his retirement, and Tsongas, having also retired, echoed the phrase, saying “government is broken.” Rudman was a Republican Tough Chooser, with a brusquer demeanor: “I’m tired of it,” he said, heading for the door. “I’m angry at the entire government.”

When Bayh made his exit this month, with his wife and hapless sons arranged behind him as if posing for a hostage video, he made sure to sound the same timeless theme of a broken government, gummed up by partisanship and manned by pols too self-interested or gutless to muck out the works. After the deep drafts of self-flattery that have become common in political rhetoric—“I have often been a lonely voice for balancing the budget .  .  . I have fought .  .  . I have continued to fight .  .  . I have championed”​—​he announced that “Congress is not operating as it should.” There was “partisanship” rather than “progress,” “slogans” in place of “solutions,” “alliteration” instead of “action.” (I made up the last one.)

Tough Choosers always insist that the problems of the present era are unprecedented. The past, in contrast to the fallen world we face now, was idyllic, and the golden age always ended the day before yesterday. Bayh fondly recollected the years when his father Birch Bayh worked as a senator, in the 1970s, a prelapsarian era when legislators “worked together” and “got things done.” The voters at the time saw it differently. At the end of Birch Bayh’s third term, they voted him and 11 of his colleagues out of office in a mass turnover that was truly unprecedented—a kind of electoral upchuck. If the Senate was getting things done in the 1970s, they were evidently the wrong things. [...]

In practice, in other words, Evan Bayh is just a reliable, conventional, loyal Democrat. Nothing wrong with that! In his reputation, however, Bayh has wanted to be so much more. When he says he’s not satisfied with politics as usual, he really means it. So he’s become a Tough Chooser. With the forelock tugging, the tortured rumination, the joint resolutions with John McCain and Olympia Snowe, the lectures to his colleagues about the tough choices they refuse to face, he can live rhetorically, in a realm of pure possibility.

In the realm of politics, though, you have to choose. You have to join the side you’re on. You have to make the tough decisions. Which is why the Tough Choosers always quit.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2010 6:39 PM
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