Bayh vs. Bai.

There’s a certain kind of essay that can be infuriating even when its main argument is correct. One such was retiring Sen. Evan Bayh’s op-ed in The New York Times this weekend. Congress is broken. Needs filibuster reform. Public financing of campaigns. Senators should eat lunch together more often.

In this case, the infuriating part is obvious: Dude, you’ve been in the Senate for 12 years. You could have proposed this filibuster reform at any point. You could have become the 10th co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act. (You still can!) Indeed, with your reputation as a hyper-moderate, your enthusiasm about either of these reforms might have had some impact, and your long Senate career might have something more memorable to it than your manner of leaving it.

As Tim mentioned earlier, Matt Bai's, writing in the Times Magazine is similarly correct in general but infuriating in specific, when he argues correctly that think tanks shouldn’t be so tied to political parties that they lose sight of big ideas, with particular reference to the new right-wing tank, The American Action Network, which is the right’s answer to the Center for American Progress, which was the center-left’s answer to the Heritage Foundation, which was the right’s answer to the Brookings Institution (which in 1916 was an answer,  I suppose, to ignorance).  All true, although unfair to CAP, which especially in recent years has been far more independent and creative than one might expect of an institution with such a political pedigree. Bai himself relies on his own big idea, also the premise and conclusion of his otherwise interesting book The Argument, which is that progressives have no big ideas:

Take health care, for example, where Democrats have succeeded in proposing long-needed fixes to the employer-based system of the 20th century — at exactly the moment that we should be considering the needs of a new century’s work force, for whom the link between the workplace and the doctor’s office seems increasingly irrelevant. (The one bill that would take apart the old, employer-based model without resorting to a government-run solution, a bipartisan proposal from the Democratic senator Ron Wyden and the Republican senator Bob Bennett, has been largely ignored in Congress.)

There are a few things wrong about this. One, the Wyden-Bennett bill is in fact largely the product of a think tank, although one with a less explicitly progressive/political mission: the New America Foundation. And why was the bill “ignored in Congress”? Mostly because there was every reason to think that the Republican co-sponsors, faced with a choice between blocking Obama from getting a victory on health care and sticking with the bill they had signed on to (usually with heavy sighs and caveats about how they supported only the “concept”) would pick the first option -- as every one of them did. The final bill that passed the Senate looked a lot like the basic Wyden-Bennett framework (individual mandate to buy insurance; no “government-run solution”), but no Republicans supported it. Finally, while “taking apart the old, employer-based model” is a tremendously good idea, given the political resistance simply to improving the individual market for health insurance, or to a small tax on more expensive employer-based plans, it’s kind of crazy to imagine that voters are ready to have the entire employer-based system wiped out and replaced with something unknown.

What Bayh and Bai have in common is a tendency to frame their frustration with politics as it is around a magical alternative, in which filibusters would disappear, Republicans negotiate in good faith, the only barrier to radical change is political parties (“Parties naturally fear … radical change,” Bai writes.), and responsibility is always balanced between the two parties. They need to get out more.

-- Mark Schmitt

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