Being a U.S. senator is arguably the best political job in the country. It has most of the prestige and almost none of the accountability of being president of the United States.
But Sen. Evan Bayh—age 54, with solid poll numbers and a helmet of hair straight out of central casting—is stepping down from his seat because, he says: “I don’t love Congress.”
Being an outspoken, grassroots, blue-collar conservative who’s so famous that he’s known simply as “Joe the Plumber,” seems like a perfect starting point from which to launch a run for Congress. But instead Sam Wurzelbacher, a/k/a Joe the Plumber, would rather carp from the sidelines, saying now that his political patron, Sen. John McCain “is no public servant.”
It’s hard to question someone else’s motives for wanting—or not wanting—something. Maybe Bayh lost his taste for public life. Maybe Joe never had it. But either way, both of them are abandoning the political process and form of government that they claim to admire—right when others have just started to engage.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going—and the rest head for the lecture circuit.
Party of One
President Barack Obama ultimately might not be a successful president. But his election represented the point when previously fence-sitting constituencies—people of color, young voters, disaffected independents—invested in the American political process rather than hold it at a skeptical arms’ length.
These constituencies were once the rejectionists who were always told that if they wanted things to change, the way to get it done was to write letters to their congressmen—and to vote. Now they’ve engaged and the people who don’t like what’s coming out of Congress are—wait for it—the congressmen themselves.
As The Atlantic’s James Fallows notes, Bayh holds “a platform 99.999 percent of Americans will never occupy.” Not sold on Bayh's claim that he’s powerless to effect change in Congress, Fallows entreats the senator: “What is holding you back?” If he can’t do anything, then who can?
Plumb Tuckered Out
Everyone gets their break somewhere along the way. It’s what you do with it that counts.
Obama’s came when Sen. John Kerry asked him to keynote the 2004 Democratic Convention. Joe the Plumber got his debating Obama outside of his suburban Ohio home.
Now he’s upset because McCain, the war hero, is kind of squishy on the big issues, while Joe’s forced to grudgingly praise Obama for calling his own shots, saying: "At least he told us what he wanted to do." But Joe could have done something about it. Money can’t buy the kind of exposure that Joe got in 2008. He had an opportunity to ride his fame and his roughneck image all the way to Capitol Hill.
Instead, he contented himself with being the mascot for an assortment of Middle American grievances—some real, some imagined. Instead of learning the issues and climbing the political ladder, he was having more fun as a Minister-without-Portfolio. He could have been a Congressman. Now he’s a cliché.
In The Federalist Number 51, James Madison wrote, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Too $hort once said, “Get in where you fit in.” The point is pretty much the same. If citizens—or senators—want something to happen, they have to make it happen.
The genius of the nation’s founding fathers was their understanding of the need for the three branches of government to work together at times—and to oppose each other at others. They gummed up the works on purpose. It’d be a pretty sick joke if they set it up with the intention all along for everyone to just fold up shop at the first sign of trouble.
Governing is hard work. For some reason, Bayh, who had a leg up on the competition because his dad was a senator, isn’t inclined to stick around to change the culture of Washington. He claims not to have lost his appetite for public service, but he’ll never have another job that affords him the opportunity to effect change like the job he has now.
Joe the Plumber could have taken the tea party to Congress. But he passed.
Bayh’s resignation is a reverse tea party for one. Unhappy with his insider status, he’s trying to turn himself into an outsider. But it’s too late for that. His move might be more genteel than protesting in the streets, but the net effect is the same: A willingness to complain, but an unwillingness to roll up his sleeves, get dirty and use his office to fix what’s wrong.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.