Some of us always suspected that Evan Bayh was a Tough Chooser, and he proved us right this month when, with a disdainful flourish, he announced he wouldn’t try to get himself reelected senator from Indiana. He had been giving off signals for a long time, talking about the “tough choices” that his fellow legislators refuse to make to solve the government’s fiscal problems, without once mentioning what those tough choices entail or, for that matter, making a tough choice himself.
Bayh did this most recently on February 3, when President Obama took questions for what seemed like hours at a meeting of Democratic senators. Bayh was the last senator to seize the microphone. He asked one of those questions that isn’t really a question, the kind that carefully combed TV reporters ask at presidential press conferences—ten pounds of peroration and two ounces of query. Ostensibly the subject was the perennial favorite of Tough Choosers, “this issue of the deficit and rising debt.”
He went on for two and a half minutes. “The public and average citizen,” Bayh said, “understand in the long run this is unsustainable.” Therefore, “we’ve got a job to do.” But would we have the courage to do it, Bayh wondered? “Are we willing to make some of the tough decisions to actually head this country in a better direction?”
In a perfect world the president would have gazed at Evan Bayh for a moment and said, “No,” then got in his limo and gone home to take a nap. Instead President Obama responded as he always does to these nonquestions, like a circus cannon blowing out gushers of confetti, clouding the air with the sparkly bits of verbiage that dazzle his admirers. For present purposes the president’s answer—which at 1,400 words lasted nearly ten minutes—was less revealing than Bayh’s question about his unnamed “tough decisions.”
It was the kind of attention-getter that tough choosers love. Bayh claimed to speak for the bewildered common folk; he kept an antiseptic distance from his own party, hovering slightly above the gathering, where the air is cleaner; and when he asked the president and his colleagues whether we were going to make those tough decisions, he really meant you. For the Tough Chooser assumes that everyone knows he will make those tough choices; he has a stack of David Broder columns to prove it. This is a sure sign that a Tough Chooser is ready to abandon politics altogether.
The last rash of Tough Choosing politicians appeared in the 1990s: Senators Bill Bradley, Paul Tsongas, Warren Rudman, a handful of others. They fashioned themselves “raging moderates” or “radical centrists,” hoping that the oxymorons would sound ironic and provocative rather than nonsensical. They were neither ideological nor partisan, they said; they were problem solvers, pragmatic idealists and idealistic pragmatists. And they were sick at heart over the government’s deficit and its inability to make the tough choices that would bring the federal budget into balance.
So they all quit. “Politics is broken,” said Bradley upon his retirement, and Tsongas, having also retired, echoed the phrase, saying “government is broken.” Rudman was a Republican Tough Chooser, with a brusquer demeanor: “I’m tired of it,” he said, heading for the door. “I’m angry at the entire government.”
When Bayh made his exit this month, with his wife and hapless sons arranged behind him as if posing for a hostage video, he made sure to sound the same timeless theme of a broken government, gummed up by partisanship and manned by pols too self-interested or gutless to muck out the works. After the deep drafts of self-flattery that have become common in political rhetoric—“I have often been a lonely voice for balancing the budget . . . I have fought . . . I have continued to fight . . . I have championed”—he announced that “Congress is not operating as it should.” There was “partisanship” rather than “progress,” “slogans” in place of “solutions,” “alliteration” instead of “action.” (I made up the last one.)
Tough Choosers always insist that the problems of the present era are unprecedented. The past, in contrast to the fallen world we face now, was idyllic, and the golden age always ended the day before yesterday. Bayh fondly recollected the years when his father Birch Bayh worked as a senator, in the 1970s, a prelapsarian era when legislators “worked together” and “got things done.” The voters at the time saw it differently. At the end of Birch Bayh’s third term, they voted him and 11 of his colleagues out of office in a mass turnover that was truly unprecedented—a kind of electoral upchuck. If the Senate was getting things done in the 1970s, they were evidently the wrong things.
Evan’s disgust at contemporary Washington politics, like his memory of political history, is necessarily selective. Bayh grew up in Washington and has spent his professional life in government—“public service” is the preferred term—and like many government lifers he has boasted of its low pay and impoverishing effects. Yet Washington politics offers ways for our public servants to avoid the poorhouse. Bayh’s wife, a former lawyer for the drugmaker Eli Lilly, has tracked her husband’s rise in power and influence by becoming a “professional director” on about a dozen corporate boards.
It’s nice work if you can get it, and the husbands and wives of senators can get it if they try, and they don’t have to try very hard. Most companies are delighted to have the spouse of a national legislator on their board of directors, even when, or especially when, the couples refute any suggestion of conflict of interest, as the Bayhs do, by simply denying it. In 2007, Sylvia Smith of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette did the math and discovered that Mrs. Bayh, working no more than 36 weeks a year, was making well over a million dollars annually from her directorships. Politics may be broken, but that doesn’t mean politicians have to go broke.
Bayh complains, as Tough Choosers do, about the low tone of our political discourse, but he can fling the partisan poo as well as the most highly paid party gorilla—a Begala, say, or even a Carville. As a passionate centrist, a tough-minded moderate, he of course voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He abandoned his support a year later, when he discovered to his horror that some of the people involved in the invasion might actually get hurt. In an arm-waving address at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Bayh expressed his revulsion by leveling a charge of negligent homicide at George Bush and Richard Cheney: “Our brave soldiers were killed because of their reckless incompetence.”
Bayh’s relationship to the Iraq war—being both for it and against it—demonstrates how a man cultivates a reputation for fierce independence and nonpartisanship, thus earning the admiration of a press corps that likewise fancies itself to be fiercely independent and nonpartisan. Bayh’s specialty is the rightward feint. He showed it first in Washington during the Clinton impeachment trial, when anonymous press reports suggested that the new senator from Indiana might buck his party and boldly vote against President Clinton. He didn’t. He publicly puzzled over whether to buck his party and boldly support the nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, then didn’t. More recently, last December, he did buck his party and boldly voted against raising the government’s debt limit; the next month, he voted with his party to raise the debt limit. Last year he gave bold speeches against government spending while voting for the auto bailout, the health care “public option,” and the $787 billion stimulus package.
In practice, in other words, Evan Bayh is just a reliable, conventional, loyal Democrat. Nothing wrong with that! In his reputation, however, Bayh has wanted to be so much more. When he says he’s not satisfied with politics as usual, he really means it. So he’s become a Tough Chooser. With the forelock tugging, the tortured rumination, the joint resolutions with John McCain and Olympia Snowe, the lectures to his colleagues about the tough choices they refuse to face, he can live rhetorically, in a realm of pure possibility.
In the realm of politics, though, you have to choose. You have to join the side you’re on. You have to make the tough decisions. Which is why the Tough Choosers always quit.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.