Bayh’s Retirement a Poor Reflection on Washington

By Governor Christine Todd Whitman
The Record
March 2, 2010

While Indiana Senator Evan Bayh’s retirement may seem a local issue or simply the latest bit of political tweeting, when results-focused reasonable leaders with a track record like Bayh’s lose hope in the potential of Washington to improve the lives of his fellow Americans, the nation had better take notice.

Senator Bayh summed up his reasons for leaving very clearly in his resignation announcement:

“After all these years, my passion for service to my fellow citizens is undiminished, but my desire to do so by serving in Congress has waned. To put it in the words I think most people can understand: I love working for the people of Indiana, I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress.”

Although it is not surprising that a former governor who got so much done for his state as an executive would grow frustrated the hyper-politicized legislative culture in Washington, DC, it is particularly disappointing to see someone like Evan Bayh leave our nation’s Congress. Although Senator Bayh and I are from different political parties, I have always found him to be a consistent voice for sensible centrism. He is a member of the Senate Centrist Coalition, and founded the Moderate Dems Working Group, among other affiliations.

Even as a Democrat, Bayh was a strong early supporter of the Iraq war and as governor he provided the largest single tax cut and the largest budget surplus in state history. In short, he has been a thoughtful and effective statesman, reliably willing to discard knee-jerk partisanship in the interest of finding the best solutions for the nation. We need more leaders like him in Washington, DC.

As if the fact of his departure were not clear enough a message to national party leaders, Bayh removed all ambiguity about his intentions in the timing of his exit. Bayh had a $13 million war chest and 20 point lead over his likely Republican opponent, former Senator Dan Coats – in stark contrast to more prominent national Democrats like Harry Reid and Chris Dodd who polls indicate have become unelectable in their home states – so his retirement decision caught national Democratic leaders completely off guard.

His timing ensured that the decision of his replacement would be securely in the hands of his fellow Indiana Democrats, not national party strategists. Bayh announced his retirement on Monday, February 15th – just four days before the filing deadline for candidates in Indiana. In practice, as blogger Bill Pascoe noted, the deadline was even sooner because state law requires candidates to have 500 signatures from each of the state’s nine congressional districts that are verified by each of the state’s 92 counties. The counties needed the signatures by noon on Tuesday – the day after Bayh’s announcement.

Bayh’s timing all but guaranteed that there would not be a Democratic candidate on the primary ballot because even the most popular candidates could not mobilize that many signatures in just a few hours. This meant that the task of choosing the party’s nominee would fall to the 32-member Indiana Democratic State Central Committee. While I wish he’d given primary voters the opportunity to weigh in on his party’s nominee for Senate, his decision ensured that Indiana’s state Democratic Party leaders, not Washington political strategists, would choose his replacement on the Democratic ballot.

Let me be clear: Bayh and I disagree on quite a number of issues, and I do not think he is the only fitting representative for Indiana. If the voters there elect a sensible centrist Republican, they will be well served and I will be pleased with another seat in the Republican column. But regardless of his successor, the signal Bayh’s resignation sends is concerning for our nation.

I hope leaders in Washington see Bayh’s resignation as he intended: as a no-confidence vote on the business practices and leadership of our national legislature. When insiders like Bayh depart in disgust, it confirms the suspicions of many Americans far from Washington that our representatives are putting their party agenda ahead of the nation’s needs. Last week’s bi-partisan jobs bill gives me a glimmer of hope that Congress is getting the message. That said, the President’s announced intention to ramrod his healthcare plan through Congress over the objections not only of Republicans, but also the reservations of many of his own party, makes me wonder how many more Evan Bayh’s will, in coming days, give up on their nation’s capital as a source of progress.

The lawmakers in our nation’s capitol need to consider governance, not reelection, their primary calling. Until they do, more thoughtful, cooperative centrists are going to depart, creating an even wider gap between the two sides of the aisle.