Evan Bayh abruptly announced he was quitting the Senate days before the filing deadline for his Senate seat, without notice to his constituents, to his colleagues, to his party’s leaders or to the White House. He deprived the Democratic voters in Indiana who had voted him into office of the opportunity of choosing their own nominee. Nice work.
So naturally, the pundits are celebrating Bayh as a "good and thoughtful" person, a moderate appalled at the partisanship that has gridlocked the Senate. Perhaps, muses the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, his departure will be the "wake-up call" the Senate needs to work together once more.
Who could argue with Bayh’s complaint? The Senate is dysfunctional. Bitter partisanship divides Washington. Politicians spend their lives raising money, as Bayh with some $13 million in his campaign account can attest.
But absent from this celebration of a departing hero is even a fleeting glance at substance. What has Evan Bayh been championing with his bipartisan common sense? Has he had any success?
The harsh reality is that Bayh has been wrong about virtually everything. And the country suffers not because partisanship blocked action, but because the establishment consensus got too much of his agenda enacted.
Bayh supported the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. He joined the bipartisan celebration of banking deregulation. He favors more military spending. He favored tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in an age of Gilded-Age inequality. He was an advocate of corporate free trade policies that encouraged multinationals to ship jobs to a mercantilist China willing to subsidize them. He’s a champion of bipartisanship — bipartisan folly.
Even in his departing, he got it wrong. Bayh announced on CBS’s Early Show that he was looking for a job in the private sector because "If I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months." This echoes the Republican assault on the recovery plan as summarized by newly elected Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, that the stimulus plan "didn’t create one new job."
Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz would be proud. These are great sound bites. They play to people’s anger about jobs, the economy, Wall Street, the bailout, the deficits. But they are both untrue and silly. There is no serious economist, right left or center, who does not accept that the recovery plan generated or saved nearly two million jobs —and forestalled what would have been a far worse downturn, if not a depression. As David Leonhardt summarized in the New York Times Wednesday:
Just look at the outside evaluations of the stimulus. Perhaps the best-known economic research firms are IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s Economy.com. They all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative.
The reality, as Martin Wolf of the conservative Financial Times once more details, the recovery act was too small, not too large— and too laden with ineffective top-end tax cuts, rather than public services jobs and infrastructure spending that would put people to work. This, of course, was a reflection of Evan Bayh’s bipartisan labors, as he joined with a couple Republicans and the sainted Democrat Ben Nelson to cut the size of the recovery bill that passed the House, adding top-end tax cuts and cutting spending on school repairs and the like, making it far less effective than it might have been.
Since then Bayh has been echoing the growing establishment clamor about deficits and debt. He has championed the notion of a bipartisan commission to report to a lame-duck Congress to vote up or down on a package that would surely include cuts in Social Security and Medicare and tax increases. This is a classic example of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, of conservatives using a crisis to enact measures that would otherwise be politically unacceptable—and that force working families to pay for the failures of the elite.
It’s worth repeating, as Martin Wolf summarizes: In the short term, we need more, not less of a boost to the economy; deficits should be higher not lower, as government spending steps in while consumers recover from the loss of over $10 trillion in assets.
Once the economy starts moving, growing employment produces rising tax revenues, and lower spending on supports like unemployment and food subsidies will erase much of that short-term borrowing. In the long term, our unsustainable deficit projections are driven almost entirely by our broken health care system. If the U.S. had the German health care system, or spent the same percentage of gross domestic product as they do on health, we’d have better health, and a surplus as far as the eye can see.
Bayh’s complaint about Washington gets some things right. Washington would be a better place were there more civility. The Senate would be functional if it would adopt majority rule. It would be far better if legislators would work together than try to do each other in. Money politics corrupts the Congress. But with all that, we should not forget about policy. The substance of Evan Bayh’s bipartisan policies that were enacted helped get us into the mess we are in, and are making it harder to get out of it.