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Was It Worth It? Cont'd

Did President Obama and the Democrats do too much? Was health care reform, in particular, a mistake? Lots of people are making that argument right now. Among them is Evan Bayh, the retiring Democratic senator from Indiana, who in a New York Times op-ed on Wednesday concluded that "Democrats over-interpreted our mandate."

As I’ve argued previously, I think the evidence of over-reach is a great deal more shaky than it seems. The structural realities of a midterm election, particularly given Obama's reliance on young and minority voters, made large Democratic losses inevitable. The poor state of the economy virtually assured that the Democrats would lose their majority, according to the election projection models. Of all the possible mistakes the Obama Administration may have made, the most critical were probably its failure to enact a larger stimulus and its failure to significantly reduce foreclosures, moves that would have bolstered the economy and/or mitigated the pain of the downturn. But those are examples of under-reach, not over-reach.

And yet, as I noted on Wednesday, the Democratic losses in the House were larger than the models would have predicted. It may have been the bad economy that soured the voters, but the time spent on health care reform likely soured them even more. I still think it’s impossible to know how the counter-factual might have played out; improve the economy and, arguably, health care reform is an asset in the election. But I can’t prove that I’m right and, given the magnitude of the Democrats’ losses, I’m less confident that the administration’s ambitious agenda was irrelevant to the final outcome.

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Bayh and the centrist critics are right--that, by trying to enact such an ambitious agenda, Obama and the Democrats inflicted significant political harm upon themselves. Was it still the right thing to do?

Several colleagues and friends--among them, Jonathan Chait, Greg Sargent, Ezra Klein, and Matthew Yglesias--have argued yes. I agree. And I think the easiest way to explain why is to look more closely at Evan Bayh hismelf.

Bayh has been an extraordinarily successful politician, at least by the conventional media definition. He has served in a number of high offices, including governor of Indiana and, since 1998, as one of its senators. He’s a Democrat in a state that generally votes Republican, yet he has never lost an election and he has generally won handily.

Bayh has also become famous. He was on the op-ed page of the Times one day after the election because he has become one of the most recognizable spokesmen for the party’s moderate wing. He's been a fixture on "Meet the Press" and other Sunday shows. Political insiders think highly of him, to the point where not once but twice he was on the short list to become the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee.

But what has Bayh actually done in office? What has he produced that will change the course of the nation's history or change the lives of its citizens? As governor, he enacted something called the 21st Century Scholars program, which pays the college tuition for at-risk children that stay free of drugs and crime. Some other states have copied it and, over the years, he’s helped to enact some other targeted programs designed to help kids pay for college. But that's pretty much it. There is no major legislation that bears his name, nor any great episode in congressional history, such as a debate or an investigation, in which he played a particularly memorable role. 

Compare that record to the record of Nancy Pelosi, who won reelection but, with Republicans taking over the House, lost her position as Speaker. In the short four years that she wielded the gavel, she presided over what may have been the most productive legislative period in modern history, starting with enactment of the Fair Minimum Wage Act in 2007 and culminating in passage of Wall Street regulation, an overhaul of student loans, and a comprehensive health care reform bill that her party had been pursuing for nearly a century. 

That ambitious agenda may or may not have provoked the popular rebuke Bayh has never suffered. But this much is certain: History will remember Pelosi as a leader who changed her country's history while making life better for tens of millions. And Bayh? I doubt history will remember him at all.