Evan Bayh's Retirement Leaves Democrats Scarred And Demanding Aggression

Senator Evan Bayh's abrupt announcement on Monday that he will retire at the end of his term has further united disparate voices within the Democratic Party behind the idea that legislative action is the only remedy to avoid future political calamity.

In the wake of the Indiana Democrat's announcement, a host of figures -- from the progressive wing of the party to devout centrists -- have chimed in to warn that failure in jobs and health care legislation have sapped the party's momentum and fortunes.

Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the blog Daily Kos, said that the best way for Democrats to salvage the fate of the party before the 2010 elections is clear: "Deliver on their campaign promises."

"No one is asking them to go out on a limb and do something they didn't first run by the American people," Moulitsas said, in an email to the Huffington Post. "The Dems are where they are because they got elected promising to be a party able to govern, and then spent the last year proving themselves wrong."

On the opposite end of the Democratic Party spectrum, Lanny Davis, a longtime Clinton confidant and purveyor of the politics of compromise, offered a similar diagnosis.

"I know this will work because of what happened to Bill Clinton," Davis said of the ability of policy accomplishments to turn around a poor narrative. "[President Obama's] failure to pass something showed him to be an ineffectual president. And the absence of effectiveness combined with the cynicism of government because of that absence of effectiveness... is toxic. It is Barack Obama that has to change that dynamic, and do it in a dramatic fashion to show he is an effective president."

Rare is the day that Moulitsas and Davis find themselves on the same page. And, indeed, when it comes to tactics the two are still fall far apart: with the Moulitsas urging Obama to scrap "irrelevant bipartisanship" and the Davis insisting that the White House move forward with incremental, unobjectionable bits of health care reform.

Still, their insta-takes on the significance of the Bayh retirement point to an increasingly widely-held belief sweeping through party ranks. Democrats of all stripes are arriving at the conclusion that their power is in tremendous peril. And if the ship goes down -- as prognosticators suggest will happen -- there won't be any discrimination between moderates and progressives.

Officials in public office know this too. A White House aide, who said he was not surprised by Bayh's decision to retire, noting the longstanding "hatred" the senator had for the inefficiencies of Congress, pointed to job growth as a way to raise party optimism.

A senior Democratic aide on the Hill agreed. "It's what we are trying to do," the aide said. "We are trying to get base hits here. We need some singles. We can't get it all back with a grand slam."

The hope among some Democrats is that Bayh's departure, combined with the growing gloom over the party's fortunes, will give lawmakers more incentive and leeway to operate, especially on health care reform. The Hill aide, while not impugning Moulitsas's position, argued that the Daily Kos founder was setting the bar too high for legislative success. "I'm glad Markos feels that way," the aide said. "Let's hope his followers give us some room to build back our reservoir of good will."

But it's impossible not to be skeptical, as Moulitsas and others are, that a Democratic Party that failed to register a major legislative breakthrough with a filibuster-proof majority will start racking up wins with a psyche that's bruised and battered.

"Republicans never doubt their agenda, and will use any tool at their disposal to ram it through," Moulitsas wrote. "Democrats have internalized the criticisms about their agenda... dilly and dally and beg Republicans to join them... instead of following the lead of their opponents."

The question ultimately becomes, what has to happen first: an attitude adjustment that sees Democrats more aggressively pushing their agenda or political victories that build up their confidence?

The two may not be mutually exclusive. Some of the most prominent names in the Democratic Party's consulting class argued on Monday that by dropping the pretense of rhetorical moderation, lawmakers could lay the groundwork for a comeback. In an e-mail to the Huffington Post, Robert Borosage, co-director of the progressive Campaign for America's Future, practically begged Obama to flex the White House's muscle.

"Take [the Republicans] on -- from the damn White House," he wrote in an e-mail to the Huffington Post. "They are fighting to cut estate taxes on the wealthiest 1% of heirs as a jobs program. Are they kidding? How can they get away with that with barely a word being said about it? They oppose doing anything to give consumers protection from credit card companies, predatory lending etc -- that would get in the way of protecting the banks. Are they kidding? How can they get away with that? They are offering themselves up to the banks as their protectors. They are lined up to oppose direct lending for kids that will help make college more affordable."

"The issues are innumerable. The choices clear," Borosage added. "We've got the bully pulpit. Let's use the damn thing."

Tad Devine, another longtime Democratic hand was just as blunt, advising lawmakers not to be wary of re-introducing voters to the previous White House's record.

"We as Democrats seem to think there was some sort of sunset provision on the Bush administration," Devine said. "That an administration that nearly bankrupted the country... is something that after six months we can't even talk about any more is absurd. We have to be like Reagan and always remind people of the situation we walked into."