The news of the day is that Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who makes up for his principle-free ideology with a complete lack of charisma, has decided not to run for re-election. The best immediate reaction came from our friend Ezra, who said that Bayh "wants to spend more time scolding his family for moving too far to the left."
In his statement, Bayh spoke more like someone running for office, not away from it, as he listed all of the past glories of his career. What was striking, though, was what he had to say about the 11 years he has spent in the Senate. After speaking of his accomplishments as Indiana secretary of state and then governor, where he did things like "cut taxes," "balance the budget," and "create the most new jobs in any eight-year period," he didn't have much in the way of substance to point to in describing his time in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body. He "worked with" some folks, "fought to make our nation safe," and was "a lonely voice for balancing the budget and restraining spending." Not particularly heroic.
This is partly Bayh's problem -- he literally has not a single significant legislative accomplishment he can trumpet -- but also partly the nature of the job. Being a senator isn't like being a governor. The only people you're allowed to order around are the few dozen people on your staff. If you want to actually achieve something, you have to get the cooperation of 49 -- or these days, 59 -- other people. You spend a lot of time sitting in boring hearings and casting boring votes.
If you feel strongly about issues, there's a reason to suffer through it -- you actually care about the outcome. But Bayh never seemed to care very deeply about much. As I wrote a year ago, centrism is the most cynical, substance-free ideology there is. The centrist doesn't know what he believes until you tell him what the left and right believe, so he can plant himself firmly in the middle. Few people embody this more than Bayh.
And after being passed over for vice president (thank heavens), Bayh obviously couldn't see much of a reason to stay in his job. Perhaps he'll turn up in some new centrist organization, where he can flirt with a presidential run to bridge the divide between the parties. Remember Unity '08? They sure did set the political world on fire. It'll be just like that.
If nothing else, we'll have one fewer sanctimonious centrist around to pull a Hamlet act every time a significant piece of legislation is considered. But I'm sure the rest of the centrists will be happy to pick up the slack.
-- Paul Waldman