In the minds of most political journalists, it seems there is no greater virtue than “moderation” or pragmatism. In the past year, the media's two great exemplars of practical-minded centrism have been Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh and Republican Bob Bennett, who both left the Senate last month, to much adulation and lamentation — and promptly became lobbyists.
Perhaps it's time to reconsider the media's beatification of “moderates,” and realize that those who walk down the middle of the road, instead of being daring trailblazers, are often following the easiest path to riches.
Bennett, from conservative Utah, was that much-adored creature: the Republican who criticizes his own party for being too conservative. In May 2010, Bennett lost his seat when he came in third place in his party's nominating caucus, thus losing his spot on the primary ballot.
This was one of the biggest Tea Party wins of last cycle, and it provided the media a great opportunity to crow about GOP extremism, painting Bennett as a model of reasonableness.
The Washington Post's liberal blogger Ezra Klein wrote “He's a legislator: He's willing to work with the other side to get things done. And he's paying for it now.”
In New York Magazine, Chris Beam wrote, “Bennett's offense: He joined the Democrats in voting for the bailouts and co-sponsored a health-care bill that would require everyone to buy insurance. In other words, he was too reasonable.”
Bayh's hallmark was bucking the liberal base, so he didn't get quite so much media adulation, but he still received plaudits as a reasonable moderate who was drowned out by partisan rancor.
Jim Lehrer hosted Bayh and Bennett for a little lovefest on PBS during the lame-duck session. Lehrer threw out banal questions like “Do agree … that it's necessary for there to continue to be compromise?” The host lauded the men for having “had to deal with political consequences from their belief in compromise.” He ended the interview by darkly asking, “So, both of you are leaving. What does that say about the state of affairs?”
All three men cursed “gridlock,” with Bayh warning, “this inaction really threatens America's future.”
This is probably backward — is the threat really inaction, or is it overreach? What has Americans upset? Is it the lack of a trading system for greenhouse gases, or is it a string of new corporate bailouts, overreaching mandates and budget-busting spending bills?
And what if Bennett and Bayh had compromised less? What if Bayh, on the Banking Committee, had not helped the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill pass? Would Apollo Global Investments, a private equity firm, still have hired him as a “Senior Advisor”? (Bayh has also been hired as a partner at K Street firm McGuire Woods.)
And what if Bennett, an appropriator, had done less earmarking? Maybe his new lobbying shop, the Bennett Group, staffed with his former Senate aides, wouldn't be able to sell itself so well to clients seeking a federal handout. (Bennett has also been hired by K Street's Arent Fox.)
Bennett's and Bayh's paths to K Street highlight the clash between the media's professed desire for compromise and moderation on one hand, and their concern about special interests and lobbyists on the other hand.
Bennett's and Bayh's “centrism” and “compromise” yielded the very results that the biggest businesses wanted, and also positioned the two senators perfectly for their K Street cashout.
Check out the conservative bill of complaints against Bennett — the very things for which Lehrer and New York Magazine writers praise him — it's a string of Big Government-Big Business collusion.
The pro-free market Club for Growth, for instance, attacked Bennett in a May 2010 white paper. The points of criticism: Bennett's central role in passing the 2008 Wall Street bailout, his crucial part in killing reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while his family members were in the pay of the government-sponsored enterprises, his relentless porking, and his support of the individual mandate requiring everyone to buy health insurance. Each of these positions pleased the biggest special interests involved.
Bayh is a mirror image: His “reasonable” positions that upset liberals also pleased the special interests. On health care, he helped drag down the public option and bar reimportation of prescription drugs. On Dodd-Frank, Bayh helped kill a bank fee.
The pattern is this: Moderate Republicans tack to the middle by supporting handouts to Big Business, while moderate Democrats tack to the middle by opposing those big-government programs that Big Business dislikes.
Then in the end, “moderates” from both parties reap their reward on K Street where their ideological “flexibility” is an asset.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.