THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Leaving the Senate
By Shea Howell
Feb. 14-20, 2010
During the heady days of the Obama campaign it was commonplace to hear older folks wonder what would happen to all the young people newly energized into political action.
Frequently people worried that these young people would be rapidly turned into cynics when President Obama failed to deliver his promised change. The fear was that such disillusionment would quickly lead to a deeper apathy.
Well, it seems all that worry was misplaced. It is not the young who are deserting political life. Rather it's the old hands. More than a loss of hope by an individual person, their departure from political life is an acknowledgement that the system is broken, perhaps beyond repair.
Catching Democratic Party leadership off guard, Senator Evan Bayh announced Monday that he will not seek a third term in November. Bayh made the decision despite what looked like a substantial lead in the polls and a campaign fund of over $13 million. Most likely he would have won re-election handily.
Evan Bayh is no novice in politics. The son of long-time Senator Birch Bayh, Evan grew up in Washington and worked on his father's campaigns. He was elected Indiana's Secretary of State at age 30 and two years later in 1988 won the governorship where he served three terms. He ran for the Senate in 1998, winning with 64% of the vote and was re-elected in 2004 with a similar margin. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he was considered a possible vice-presidential pick for then candidate Obama.
Yet, Bayh has decided to quit. His reasoning, while offered gently in his usual style, was a scathing indictment of what has happened to government. He said, "There is too much partisanship and not enough progress-too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the people's business is not being done."
Bayh cited the recent malfunctioning of the Senate over the proposed $85 billion jobs bill as one example. He watched it shrink to $15 billion in a matter of hours. It was one of the reasons for his "growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should." Describing an increasingly dysfunctional system, Senator Bayh concluded, "All this and much more has led me to believe that there are better ways to serve my fellow citizens. I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress."
Neither do most people. The recent Washington Post poll says that 71% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. In a business where most incumbents are re-elected no matter how badly they perform, nearly three dozen members of the House have decided not to run for re-election. That's nearly 7%.
In total, five Democratic Senators have chosen not to run this fall, as have six Republican incumbents.
While there are always particular reasons for each decision, we have reached the point where we need to acknowledge that this is about more than private decisions. Even those in power are recognizing the bankruptcy of the system of government we have allowed to evolve.
In the effort to protect personal interest and short-term gain over concern for the public good and long-term thinking, we have turned democratic deliberation into farce.
Evan Bayh is no radical. Known mostly as a fiscal conservative, a centrist who prefers practical programs to ideological debate, he is nonetheless performing an important public service. By leaving an office that many in this country will do just about anything to obtain, he is offering us an invitation to rethink what we mean by Democracy.
It is a rethinking we cannot avoid much longer.
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