Byron York's post about Evan Bayh's retirement is spot on, and gives us much to ponder. Bayh, York notes, complains that:
The Senate just ain't what it used to be. "While romanticizing the Senate of yore would be a mistake, it was certainly better in my father's time," Bayh writes.
My father, Birch Bayh, represented Indiana in the Senate from 1963 to 1981. A progressive, he nonetheless enjoyed many friendships with moderate Republicans and Southern Democrats.
One incident from his career vividly demonstrates how times have changed. In 1968, when my father was running for re-election, Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader, approached him on the Senate floor, put his arm around my dad's shoulder, and asked what he could do to help. This is unimaginable today.
One reason that scene is unimaginable today is that in the 1960s Washington was a one-party capital in ways that it is not now. When Dirksen put his arm around the elder Bayh's shoulder, there were 64 Democrats in the Senate. The session before, from 1965 to 1967, there were 68 Democrats. In fact, for the decade from 1959 to 1969, there were never fewer than 64 Democrats in the Senate. The party controlled the House by similarly huge margins (in 1966, there were 295 Democrats in the House), and of course occupied the White House from 1961 to 1969. Beyond that, media coverage of politics was controlled by the Washington Post, New York Times, CBS and NBC -- outlets mostly friendly to the party in power, with no talk radio, no Internet, and no Fox News. There wasn't just one-party rule in Dirksen's and Bayh's time; there was one-party domination. Republicans mostly went along, not making a lot of trouble.
Democrats still long for the days when the Republicans were like the Washington Generals, the team whose job it is to lose to the Harlem Globetrotters every day. Since 1980, when the GOP took the Senate back for the first time in decades, and, even moreso since 1994, when the GOP took both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1950s, that has ceased to be the case. The Democratic leadership is, I fear, still lost in the sixties. As a new generation arises, that was raised after 1994, that might, finally, start to change. Until then, things will remain nasty in Congress.