Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Thought About Evan Bayh's "Retirement"

I don’t pretend to sophistication about electoral politics. So don’t look to me for bright ideas about the hardheaded political calculations behind Evan Bayh’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection to the Senate. I was struck, however, by how it dramatized the generational politics within the Democratic Party.

I’m using “generational” in an ideological rather than a biological sense. For present purposes we can divide Democrats into three generations, depending on the circumstances of their coming of age ideologically. There are:

Grandparents—think of Henry Waxman or Chris Dodd—who came of age in the 1970s when Democrats were exacting political retribution for Vietnam and Watergate while they extended and consolidated the Great Society;

Parents—think of the Clintons, Chuck Schumer and Mark Warner--who emerged during the 1990s when the Clinton administration was trying to achieve liberal objectives while sharing power with Gingrich Republicans;

and Kids—think of Robert Gibbs and the Daily Kos crowd--who came of age contesting the legitimacy of the Bush presidency during the 2000 Florida election recounts and the Iraq war.
These distinctions are only loosely correlated with age. Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank are Grandparents although they’re young enough to be Parents. Al Franken is old enough to be a Parent but still hangs out with the Kids. Al Gore is a Parent pretending to be a Kid. I peg Obama as a good Kid, adept at placating the Parents with ingratiating gestures like his 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address, but still with a Kid’s untamed ideological heart.

Obama’s election represents the ascendance of the Kids, but the exigencies of governing have put him in league with the Grandparents in the congressional leadership. That strategic alliance builds on, and reinforces, an attitudinal affinity. The Kids and the Grandparents both had the formative experience of believing that it was their job to wipe away the stain of Republican usurpations.

The congressional Grandparents were pushed aside by the Parents during the Clinton presidency. The Kids have brought the Grandparents back into the game because they need old liberal war horses to give their militancy ideological content. As a result, the Kid's liberalism is beginning to look a lot more like Mondale’s than Clinton’s.

Bayh’s an ambitious Parent still trying to follow the trail to the presidency that Bill Clinton cut in the 90s. The oedipal workings of Democratic politics have left him and his generation out in the cold. His “retirement” speech sounds to me like a generational call to arms.

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