Depending on whom you ask, the decision by Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a moderate Democrat, not to seek re-election is the best or worst thing to happen to the U.S. Senate in years. But if you want to try to understand it, it’s worth asking Richard Bryan.
They overlapped in the Senate by two years. Bryan retired in 2000 after representing Nevada for two terms and spending much of his adult life in politics, as an assemblyman, a state senator, attorney general and then governor before going to Washington. In February 1999, he rocked Nevada politics by announcing he would get out. Today, Bryan is a senior partner at Lionel Sawyer and Collins, the state’s largest law firm, and a not-very-gray eminence to Nevadans in general and Democrats in particular.
Bryan wonders why Bayh acted so close to the 2010 election. Democrats are—and should be—concerned about keeping their congressional majorities. Bryan announced his plans nearly two years before the next election, giving Democrats time to seek a successor, and they still lost to Republican John Ensign, who is heard from these days as often as Halley’s Comet.
While liberals dismissed Bayh as a weather vane, he denounced what he considers the Senate’s excessive partisanship and dysfunction. When Bryan left Washington, he expressed similar sentiments about Congress.
“The atmosphere is so venomous now,” Bryan said. “There is less and less of a political center. Decades ago you didn’t get straight party-line votes on virtually everything. There were Democrats and Republicans who were moderates and frequently voted together. The civil rights bills of the 1960s were the classic example—some Republicans voted for them, and Southern Democrats voted against them.”
Bryan spares neither party in analyzing what went wrong, although, as a lifelong Democrat, he understandably (and rightly) sees Republicans as a bigger problem. “The rise of talk radio, the increasing takeover of the Republican Party by the far right—moderates are not welcome. Fringe groups have co-opted the political process, sometimes in both parties, more often in the Republican Party. In the previous decade, the social conservatives have made their point of view the litmus test for support and had a disproportionate impact. The real zealots have changed the process.”
Another problem is how people view government. Like anyone with common sense, Bryan doesn’t believe government is always the solution, but—common sense again—he doesn’t think it’s always the problem. Yet Bryan doesn’t spare the people in government, either. He thinks Democrats have done a poor job of explaining why they have been pursuing the policies they support, and understands the public’s displeasure, as manifested in criticism from the left and the right.
“The economy is looking better, manufacturing numbers are up several months in a row, but the average person doesn’t judge it by macroeconomic reports, however encouraging they are,” he says. “Their question is, do I have a job, or am I losing my job or why am I working fewer hours next week, and they have reasons to ask those questions.”
Bryan also has a theory about Bayh’s decision to leave. Like Bayh, he served as a governor. “Governors by the nature of their office are action-oriented. They can’t just debate. They have to decide. The legislative process requires the kind of consensus that has been elusive due to the partisan discord and I think the lack of accomplishment is particularly difficult for former governors whose attitude is, ‘I don’t have until next month, I have to make the decision today.’ Governors aren’t the only ones frustrated by this, especially when you have gone into the public sphere to make policy.”
Bryan remains one of Nevada’s best and most popular politicians ever. In 1994, when Republicans swept to power in Congress, he easily won re-election against an opponent who used most of the popular talking points. In other words, he’s worth listening to. And it’s worth pondering that with every question, he paused thoughtfully before answering. But when asked, “Do you miss it?” he sounded like he leaped 10 feet.
“I do not miss it,” he said. It’s easy to see why. It’s harder to see why both parties, Democrats in particular, don’t learn more from him.