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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Misplaced Nostalgia

Today brings still another bushel-basket of earnest if not angry commentary on the retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh. Sigh. But the best single quote was supplied by Tom Schaller at FiveThirtyEight, aimed at Bayh’s nostalgia for the good old days:

[T]he notion of a government run based on bi-partisan cooperation among moderates from each party is a fictional fairyland that never existed in the first place, and split-party governance is hardly better. Listening to Bayh wax poetically about the past is like hearing a lecture from your dad (or Bayh’s, since his father was senator, too) about how morally superior America was 50 years ago, and then flipping on an episode of Mad Men to see dad’s generation drunk by lunch and patting their secretaries’ bottoms.

Schaller goes on, however, to offer his own sense of what self-conscious “moderates” can and cannot constructively accomplish, and it’s pretty well-reasoned:

1. They should lay down markers now and again, and occasionally be a holdout when the policy process is insufficiently transparent or the national deliberation insufficiently substantive. Majority-party moderates needn’t rubberstamp every item of their majority’s agenda, nor should minority-party moderates be co-opted tools. However, they shouldn’t expect their ideal policy preference to be the outcome produced by the majority party caucus for which they serve as either an in-party outlier or an out-party critic. This is policy hostage-taking, and it is more dangerous and corrosive to democracy than the ideological, one-party rule moderates so often carp about.
2. Then, after they have negotiated for some concessions or refinements, and precisely because those concessions and refinements were made to accommodate their rhetorical or literal opposition, their role at that point is to wholeheartedly back the compromise. They are fully entitled to clarify their vote for the constituents, saying something like, “Look, this is not the legislation that a chamber full of people like me would produce, but this is a good and good-faith effort by the majority party to solve this national problem.” But what they shouldn’t be allowed to do is hold the process hostage and extract certain policy concessions and still complain about both the process and the outcome. It would be more intellectually honest to just vote against the legislation and criticize it–or even vote for it and criticize it.

My main objection to Tom’s formulation–and for that matter, to how Evan Bayh seems to think–is that being a “moderate” isn’t always must a matter of favoring compromise and bipartisanship, or positioning oneself between wrangling factions or parties. “Moderate” policy positions can reflect matters of principles just as strongly held as those of more conventionally ideological politicians. A good example is the cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions, which used to be a “moderate” position until Republicans abruptly abandoned it and then began denouncing it as the work of Satan. “Moderates” developed and then supported cap-and-trade not just because it had features attractive to both progressives and conservatives, though it did, but because they thought it would work in the real world.
Personally, I’d say that’s the sort of “moderation”–focused on innovative real-life solutions–that both parties need more than they need old-school wheeler-dealers who are good at forging legislative coalitions based on personal relationships and palm-greasing, which seems to be the object of so much of the misplaced nostalgia surrounding Bayh’s retirement.

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