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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Whither the “Bayh Group”?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on April 3, 2009
One aspect of yesterday’s budget votes that’s drawing a lot of attention is the fact that Evan Bayh joined Ben Nelson as one of the only two Senate Democrats to vote against the leadership-sponsored resolutions (and for, BTW, an alternative offered by Republican Sen. Mike Johanns).
Nelson’s vote was no surprise; he’s always voted this way, and he’s from Nebraska. But Bayh’s another matter–a fairly senior senator with a safe seat, in a state carried by Obama, and a Democrat who was apparently on the short list to become Obama’s running-mate last year. Because of his still-relatively-young age and his vote-gathering prowess, Bayh’s also been mentioned now and then as a future presidential candidate, and tested the waters pretty thoroughly going into 2008. Ezra Klein dug around in Bayh’s voting record today, and concluded that he’s simply erratic, unlike Ben Nelson.
Bayh’s statement explaining his vote is an expression of straight-forward deficit hawkery. But plenty of other Democratic deficit hawks had no trouble voting for the Democratic budget resolution, most notably the Cassandra of Democratic deficit hawks, Blue Dog Congressman Jim Cooper of TN.
The general feeling in the progressive blogosphere is probably best summed up by Steve Benen at Political Animal: “Yes, Bayh is the new Lieberman.” This epithet is made even more piercing by the fact that the actual Joe Lieberman found a way to vote for the Democratic budget resolution.
The more immediate issue for Democrats is that Bayh was the convener of a group of 16 “centrist” Senate Democrats poised to play a key role in the shaping of budget and other legislation for the remainder of this year. The “Bayh group” was already under fierce attack for an alleged willingness to position itself between the two parties and thwart Obama’s policy agenda. Some of us have suggested that these attacks were unfair or at least premature, and have tried to distinguish between “centrists” who do want to stand aside from the Democratic Party and cut deals, and those who don’t.
Bayh’s vote on the budget will provide abundant ammunition to those who want to lump all Democratic “centrists” into the putative-“traitor” camp, even though 14 members of the “Bayh group” voted with the rest of the Democratic Caucus.
Best as I can tell, Bayh’s vote was motivated by a sincere horror of deficits and debt, which is so strong that he doesn’t mind abandoning his party and indeed, his fellow “centrists” on what was, after all, the most epochal budget vote since at least 1993 and probably since 1981. For that very reason, he ought to step back from his leadership role in the Senate “centrist” group, in favor of senators whose agreement with and loyalty to the Obama agenda is much less in question. If this group remains the “Bayh group,” it will struggle to achieve the credibility it needs to become anything other than a crude power bloc looking to shake down the administration and the congressional leadership for personal, ideological, and special-interest favors.

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