Give Bayh a Chance?

GIVE BAYH A CHANCE?…. Evan Bayh’s working group hasn’t exactly taken the liberal blogosphere by storm. The reaction has been critical, and the most common complaint is that it’s simply a tool for business interests. That fear may prove correct. But let me be devil’s advocate for a moment and at least try to present a more palatable explanation. In short, the group’s primary benefit may be to provide political cover at home to perennially vulnerable Senators.

As an initial matter, let me clarify that I disagree with forming the group. Yes, the business agenda worries me — but that agenda worries me with respect to all Senators. My bigger gripe is that the mere formation of the group undermines the “optics” of the progressive agenda. That is, by creating a self-described “moderate” group, it necessarily creates the perception that the rest of the Democratic Senate is a bunch of wild-eyed Bolsheviks wearing berets and smoking cloves.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but the Bayh group’s mere existence will reinforce that narrative. In doing so, the group will inevitably pull the overall political center of gravity to the right on any given issue. And of course, the media will use any and all means necessary to play up the moderate/liberal division that has featured so strongly in its coverage of Pelosi’s House.

So that’s my gripe. My hope, though, is that the group will turn out to be relatively harmless. And that question — are they harmful? — will turn on why these Senators joined the group. If it’s to extract more money for and from businesses, then yes — it’s a bad development.

But it’s possible that most members of the group have signed on simply for political cover at home. In other words, maybe this group affirmatively wants to push progressive policies, but needs cover to avoid being painted as too liberal at home. That view is generally consistent with the types of people who have joined. While people like Bayh and Carper are safe, most come from predominantly Republican or toss-up states like Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Florida, and New Hampshire.

This is a point that people sometimes miss with the Blue Dogs in the House — membership in the group is a political asset in conservative districts. It’s something that legislators can and do emphasize to dull the perception that they’re out of touch with their districts.

Obviously, that’s not always how it works. And the Blue Dog leadership often pushes a lot of terrible policies for terrible reasons. But my hunch is that a lot of modern Democratic legislators (following the Southern realignment) are actually more liberal than they can admit, and groups like the Blue Dogs can — somewhat ironically — help them be more liberal.

The ultimate proof will be in the pudding. If Bayh decides that his mission in life is to help corporate interests, then he deserves sharp criticism. But if the point is simply to shave 5% off of anything Obama proposes to maintain “moderate” perceptions in vulnerable districts, I don’t have much of a problem with that. Besides, although Bayh was pretty terrible on Iraq, his legislative record is generally solid.

So maybe it’s worth holding fire for a bit to see.