The DLC's Long Good-Bayh
The announcement by Indiana Democratic Senator Evan Bayh that he won’t seek a third term certainly caught me by surprise. It actually serves as a political coda of sorts on the end of a style of legislative leadership that reached its peak during the 1990s, with President Clinton and the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. Back then, Clinton’s detractors often referred to this strategy as triangulation, but it arguably provided a practical means of building legislative coalitions with members from both parties on issues like welfare reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The Clinton Administration's claim was that these negotiated outcomes were actually pretty close to the centrist ideological preferences of most Americans. Bayh, having been first elected to the Senate in 1998, really came in on the tail end of this phenomenon, but as chairman of the DLC, he was viewed by many as a future leader in this approach to policymaking.
Bayh’s departure continues the decade-long process of moving Congress toward its ideological extremes, both left and right. Progressives argue that if only President Obama would push through his agenda using legislative tools like the reconciliation process, then progress would be achieved. Republicans of course counter that Obama must be stopped so that they can return the country’s policy agenda to a place where it more closely reflects what they believe to be the center-right preferences of the electorate.
While it is true that Bayh isn’t the last moderate left in Congress (some put Senator Jeanne Shaheen in that same category), he certainly is a high-profile loss. Current DLC chairman and former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. is contemplating a primary challenge to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in New York. Should Ford make it back to Washington, he will find that his style of legislative deal-making is now derided on both sides of the aisle for its lack of purity. Even with Obama’s historic majorities in Congress, we’re still waiting to see what the workable alternative will be.
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