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Politics

Bayh, Bayh, Evan, We Hardly Knew Ye

There are lessons for all in the Indiana senator's decision to call it quits after two terms.

The decision by Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh to retire this year is a stunning blow to Democrats, who never even saw it coming, and another big boost for Republicans, who are getting giddy about their chances of retaking the Senate.

Bayh’s retirement moves his Indiana Senate seat from the safe Democratic category to the endangered list, which now includes eight Democratic Senate seats in all. The odds of a GOP majority are still less than even – they’d need to knock off 10 Democrats and hold on to four vulnerable seats of their own – but Republicans clearly have momentum on their side and it may keep building. Voter anger at Washington is palpable and it’s mostly aimed at Democrats because they’re in charge (sort of).

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But Bayh’s departure has broader significance, no matter which party you favor. As one of the few centrists left in either party, his retirement matters to both sides, and, even more to the point, at the American public. That’s not to praise Bayh, in particular, but to call attention to what his decision represents.

Bayh is leaving because he has no stomach for what’s happening in Washington. It would have been more useful if he’d offered his blistering judgment on lawmakers a long time ago, rather than as he was heading for the exit door, but his comments are still worth paying attention to. “There’s just too much brain-dead partisanship and tactical maneuvering for short-term political advantage,” he said on ABC television, adding that the extremes in both parties almost always demand their way or nothing. “All too often recently, we’ve been getting nothing.”He specifically cited his disappointment with the Senate’s recent inability to agree on a deficit-cutting commission, which Republicans blocked, and the collapse of a compromise jobs bill, that Democrats stopped.

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There are now at least 42 members of the House and Senate who won’t seek reelection, the most in almost a quarter of a century, and we’re sure to get more before the filing season is over. There are many reasons for the decisions, but there’s no doubt that Congress has turned into a bitterly partisan, frustrating, self-preserving mess. Many Americans want less government action and less involvement in their private lives, but that should be a conscious decision, not a result of government paralysis. There are too many national problems crying out for solutions.

But we don’t seem headed toward any kind of meaningful resolution. Every sign points to even more partisanship, as election after election turns into a battle between the far right and the far left. It’s hard to get excited about the middle, even though that’s where a majority of Americans put themselves, but ultimately that’s where the answer must come from. The extremes need to compromise, but the center has to become more politically active to force them to do so. And that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

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