by Ken Feltman
Hear reason, or she’ll make you feel her.
The retirement of Indiana Democratic Senator Evan Bayh stunned Democrats. Bayh, a moderate in a right-of-center state, has never been threatened in previous elections. He was ahead in the polls and had a huge war chest. He was expected to win but he tossed in the towel. He said, in effect, that the job was not fulfilling anymore.
The primary reason most Democrats are retiring is straightforward: They think they will lose in November. Democrats across the country are getting discouraging results from their political advisors and pollsters. If negative poll results caused accidents instead of jittery nerves, the emergency rooms would be filled with Democratic candidates.
Bayh did not have popularity or money problems. He faced a tougher election than usual but was favored. Bayh quit for a second and a third reason. He was tired of being pressured by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and the White House to toe the party line; and he resented being passed over by President Obama for vice president in favor of what he considers Joe Biden’s loose-lips.
His twin reasons show much about Evan Bayh but more about the plight of centrists in today’s corrosive political environment. Bayh concluded that he had no future in his party because, day by day, his party has come to be controlled by the left fringe. Moderates are not welcomed and are tolerated only so long as they follow the lead of the left. Bayh could not do that. So he is leaving.
In addition, Bayh’s feelings were hurt when Obama picked Biden. He could have accepted Hillary Clinton. He knew what she would bring to the ticket. But Bayh has worked with Biden. He has assessed Biden. Bayh lives his political life – and seemingly his personal life – in control. Biden is uncontrolled, veering here, flailing there, oops!
The scuttlebutt among Democratic insiders says that Bayh’s ego was bruised when Biden was selected. That perceived slight festered. Bayh grew more resentful as Biden bumbled. Democratic insiders claim that Bayh is an elitist who expected a coronation as vice president but that Biden is a scrapper, a fighter, a real Democrat.
Forget Bayh’s ego. He was a good negotiator. He was a good compromiser. He was a good thinker. But negotiating and compromise are neglected arts in Washington today, to say nothing about thinking.
Regretting and rejoicing
If you are a partisan Democrat, you regret that Bayh’s Indiana seat may be lost. You do not regret that he is gone. If you are a partisan Republican, you rejoice that Indiana is now in play. You are emboldened. But if you are an independent voter, or a moderate of either party, you should have an empty feeling: Yet another of your compatriots has been pushed to the sidelines.
During their heady days of control, Republicans such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) schemed to force moderate Republicans to cast “loyalty-test” votes that affirmed the GOP leadership’s position but went against the interests of the constituents of the moderate Republicans. The right-wing Republicans ignored the fact that there was a reason, for example, why Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) was a middle-of-the-road Republican. He represented the old Jack Kemp district in the Buffalo area, a heavily unionized, blue-collar Democratic district that just happened to prefer to send a moderate to Congress rather than a liberal. The Democrats kept putting up liberal candidates. The voters went for the moderate Republicans.
DeLay, from a secure and conservative Republican district in suburban Houston, seemed never to understand that as he pushed moderates from competitive districts out of the party, he made the party smaller. Is failing math a qualification for party leadership?
Quinn quit, privately telling friends that DeLay had no idea what it took for a Republican to win in Buffalo. Oh, make no mistake, Quinn landed well: He took a job as a senior lobbyist at one of Washington’s leading firms. His future is secure. But are his constituents better served? Are we?
Lessons from the 19th century
The lesson in Bayh’s departure is that the moderates, the centrists, the independents – whatever they are called – do not participate in party caucuses. They can be decisive in general elections. But the party leaders, increasingly, come from the far fringes of their parties and do not respond to voices from the shrinking middle of their own party, much less to outsiders like the Tea Partiers. It is all about turf. Will the Tea Party leaders overthrow the current Republican leaders and take over the Republican Party, or will they form the basis for a new, third party that will rival and perhaps supplant the Republicans? Probably neither.
American politics goes in cycles of about 20 to 36 years. This cycle began in the early 1980s and is progressing from centrists governing to a power struggle between the left wing of the Democratic Party and the right wing of the Republicans. Today, the cycle is reaching its limits on the left and the right. The future is limited for conservative social policies within the Republican Party, just as there is little future for hard-left social welfare policies in the Democratic Party. The country is ahead of the parties and their leaders. The country is spinning back toward the center. The Tea Partiers do not have a natural home within either party. Some analysts say that they are throw-backs to the Ross Perot era. We see their influence in elections, as in Massachusetts. We think they are there when we see their rallies. We know they are there when we count their votes.
The last time a major party spun apart was when various factions and parties vied for the splintering Whigs in the 1850s. The Whigs, schizophrenic about abolition, were weighed down by aging egos – Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, William Henry Harrison, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler. When Harrison died shortly after his 1845 inauguration, Vice President Tyler replaced him. Tyler soon displeased Whig leaders and was ousted from the party a few months after succeeding Harrison. Yes, the Whigs banished their own president. Or did they? Tyler had campaigned with Harrison – “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” – but he was never a member of the Whig Party.
German and Irish immigrants were pouring into the country, giving rise to a nativist party, the Know Nothings, which attracted many Whigs who were concerned about immigration. The Whigs held the White House in 1852 but denied renomination to President Fillmore. They promptly lost the White House and imploded. The Whigs did not hold a national convention in 1856. Abolitionists left the proud Whig Party and coalesced behind a fledging, disparate party that had the temerity to nominate a country lawyer and former Whig, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860.
Today’s Democrats are not going away. They have survived the blood-letting of Southern conservatives, who trickled to the Republican Party beginning in the 1960s. So if a new party is rising, it will have to supplant, absorb or co-opt the Republicans. Perhaps it will be a quiet, hardly noticed change.
Are the Republicans the new Whigs? We know that today’s Republicans are making many of the same mistakes that the Whigs made in the 1840s and 1850s.
Few people study that era’s dismal politics. It seems so confusing and yet boring, with weak presidents following each other. In retrospect, it was transformational.
What might such a transformation look like today? No one knows but the past gives some insights: The Republican Party will experience it at the local and state levels first, as Tea Party candidates defeat conventional Republicans and win GOP nominations. Some of those Tea Partiers will be kooky, others will be single-issue ideologues. A few will be anti-immigrant, a smattering will be paranoid. Others will be very like the Republicans they beat.
In November most of the kooks, ideologues, nativists and paranoids will lose to a Democrat. That will caused anguished cries by establishment Republicans: “They cost us Kentucky! They are ruining our party.” The few crazies who win will be magnets for the media and their weird statements will cause embarrassment for the majority of responsible Republicans. After that, individual Tea Partiers – who are shown by research to be as sensible as any other politically involved Americans – will make individual decisions.
Will they drop out and figure that they tried but failed? Will they keep pushing the Tea Party? Will they gravitate to the Republican Party? If most drop by the wayside, they will add to the number of independents who participate in politics mostly by voting in general elections, not party elections and conventions, and the Republican Party will continue to dwindle. If most stick with the Tea Party, the struggle within the GOP will intensify among those who want to get a bigger tent to attract the Tea Partiers and those who want to keep control in the hands of the grand old faithful.
If most Tea Partiers give the Republican Party a try, titanic battles will be fought over control of local precincts, GOP contributor lists, seating charts at Republican dinners and all sorts of things that will drain the party of energy. The biggest battles in religious institutions, educational organizations and political parties are over the little things.
As those battles are decided, the Tea Partiers will take over more party positions now held by the old guard. The GOP will survive but will be more libertarian, more accepting of new blood, less predictable.
Will that Republican Party be able to be competitive with the Democrats? That depends – as now – on the independents. Even if wholesale changes occur, the independents, the centrists, the middle-ground voters, will decide. What the battle of the Tea Party versus the Republican Party will determine is whether there will be a bigger GOP tent and whether that tent will produce candidates who are more attractive to the voters in the middle.
A skydiver moment?
Forget the conventional wisdom that stresses the Democrats’ problems. Their problems are short term. The Republicans face a long term crisis.
Whatever happens, the Republican Party will change or disintegrate. There is no turning back. Politics is not skydiving. A person cannot decide at the last moment not to jump. When you are challenged in politics, you must respond or lose ground. The Republicans may not understand that they have no choice.
Although they are not part of the Republican Party, the Tea Partiers have tossed the establishment Republicans out of the plane. To be determined is what kind of parachute the Republicans have made for themselves. They never figured they would need it. The Tea Partiers have little faith in it. But now that parachute – that tangle of relationships, platform positions, financial supporters, egos and attitudes – is all that the party has to protect against a horrible landing.
How do we know? We have the example of the Whigs.