02.15.10

Evan Bayh's Shameful Retreat

The perennial veep shortlister bashed Congress in announcing his retirement. What if, writes Lee Siegel, he’d taken responsibility for it?

The perennial veep shortlister bashed Congress in announcing his retirement. What if, writes Lee Siegel, he’d taken responsibility for it? Plus, Peter Beinart on how Bayh’s exit endangers a Democratic dream.

In the mass exodus of the political class from the world of politics, Evan Bayh’s startling announcement Monday morning that he was retiring from the Senate was something new. Unlike Patrick Kennedy, Chris Dodd, and Byron Dorgan—to mention only the most prominent recent retreats from political life—Bayh enjoyed favorable poll numbers and was perceived as a likely winner in November.

Bayh seems to have a very different reason for cutting and running than the specter of ignominious defeat. The times demand leaders, fighters, principled tacticians and creative conceptualizers. Bayh’s response? In that case, I’m outta here! What a terrible mediocrity this man is. He leaves the Senate he served in loftily spewing contempt for its members' selfishness and spinelessness, even as he demonstrates those precise qualities in his decision to turn tail and run.

What a terrible mediocrity this man is. He leaves the Senate he served in loftily spewing contempt for its members' selfishness and spinelessness, even as he demonstrates those precise qualities in his decision to turn tail and run.

Citing the recent Senate vote against the creation of a bipartisan commission to address the swelling deficit, and also the recent failure of legislation meant to create jobs, Bayh said in a statement: “All of this and much more has led me to believe that there are better ways to serve my fellow citizens, my beloved state and our nation than continued service in Congress.” At a press conference held a few hours later, he added, “The people’s business is not getting done.” In other words, Bayh’s reason for leaving politics sounded exactly like the contemporary voter’s reason for disdaining politics: Congress stinks and the government is dysfunctional. Yet there’s a difference between Bayh and the average voter.

Peter Beinart: Why Bayh’s Exit Matters Bayh is a professional politician and the nature of politics is fighting uphill battles. The voter might have the luxury of expecting instant change, but the politician knows that the phrase “political will” is almost an oxymoron. Just as it takes thousands of people to build an airplane and get it off the ground, so it takes hundreds of people to change a relative handful of minds and come up with a transformative piece of legislation. The very fact that politics exists as a mechanism for change means that collective life is essentially resistant to change. That’s why tyrants dispense with politics. Politics takes too long.

So when Evan Bayh—a golden boy who virtually inherited his Senate seat from his father, Birch Bayh, has never lost an election, and is considered presidential material—presents as the reason for his withdrawal from the Senate the polarized environment and intractable loggerheads of our current politics, you wonder just what kind of politician he has ever been. Bayh speaks as though our moment of polarization and paralysis were the end of American politics. But they are not. For any true leader—for any genuine politician—they are the beginning of a new era.

Politically speaking, this might seem like the worst of times, but it is most certainly also the best of times. For all his Prufrock-like temporizing and hesitations, Obama has changed American politics with his unflinching candor about the tired mind-sets and conventions that are decaying American politics from within. It is nothing short of remarkable to hear a president say all the things out loud that we have been saying for years to and amongst ourselves about our consciousness-depleting news cycle, and our new echo-chamber polemics, and our naive love of the easy solution—all of which keeps our politics several generations behind our society and culture.

Unlike the previous eight years, things are moving fast—and if they are not always moving in a hopeful direction, we are not sitting in a pool of stagnant sameness, either. Universal health care is up, it’s down, it’s up, it’s down, it’s up again! The banks might have landed happily on their feet, but the public’s dander is up and outrage might lead to a permanent condition of reform. The credit-card companies are slowly being regulated. We are leaving Iraq. Overseas, we are actually killing America’s enemies rather than using them to turn orange alerts into red alerts in order to keep the public terrified and passive. Happily, those of us (in particular, me) who thought that trying to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would cause an anti-gay backlash were wrong. The very fact of polarization and paralysis means that the old ways of thinking have lost their vitality—just as traffic experts relieve gridlock by building new roads and bridges and redirecting the flow of cars, we may very well create new parties, new movements, new access lanes into power.

We may even be witnessing the rebirth of the moderate or liberal Republican, as the GOP vetoes the idea of a purity test, and leading conservatives meet this Wednesday in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to draw up the “Mount Vernon Statement” in an attempt to marginalize extremists and modernize the party.

The historian Arnold Toynbee famously theorized that history proceeds by a special type of dialectic: challenge and response. He believed that flourishing civilizations grew in response to the challenges they faced. The Catholic Church, for example, responded to the anarchy following the collapse of the Roman Empire by uniting the warring kingdoms under a single religious creed. “Civilizations die from suicide, not murder,” Toynbee wrote. The fatal blow comes not from an external enemy but from a lack of inner resolve. When what Toynbee called a “creative minority” does not rise to the occasion of a great challenge, society withers and dies.

When Evan Bayh histrionically despairs of our political system's capacity to adjust itself, he is implying that worse men and women than he are murdering our politics. But by turning up his nose and sashaying out of the public fray (and into his next lucrative private endeavor), he is the one who is destroying his own “beloved” country—by bringing America one step closer to dying by its own hand.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.