By the time Birch Evans (Evan) Bayh III announced yesterday afternoon that he would not seek a third term in the U.S. Senate, he had fallen far from his position as one of the Democrats’ safest reelection bets. Although he declared that his decision was motivated by his desire to escape the “strident partisanship” of the present-day Senate and his interest in finding “better ways to serve my fellow citizens,” he faced the prospect of losing the seat in the same fashion his legendary father did 30 years ago. According to internal party polls just three months ago, he was polling at 63 percent; by late January, the junior senator from Indiana had the support of a mere 45 percent of likely voters surveyed by Rasmussen Reports.
Even a $12 million war chest could no longer shield Bayh from an array of formidable Republican challengers, including former congressman John Hostettler — whose famed eccentricities seemingly do not interfere with his ability to rally grassroots supporters — and state senator Marlin Stutzman, whose passionate following among the tea-party crowd may overcome his otherwise low name recognition. Even Bayh’s predecessor, Dan Coats, is tossing his hat into the ring, despite his having spent more time over the last decade lobbying on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry than paying attention to Hoosier politics.
Certainly there is speculation that Bayh may seek the Democratic presidential nomination — or even attempt an independent presidential campaign — in 2012 or 2016. This assumes that Bayh can repeat his past success in presenting himself as one of the Democratic party’s more centrist players. But it was precisely this well-practiced fence-straddling between conservatism and liberalism that led to Bayh’s downfall. The anger and fatigue among Hoosier voters over the current recession — combined with President Obama’s unpopularity — are hurting all Democrats, but Bayh was hurt even worse by the perception among both conservatives and liberals that he stood for his own political ambitions (and occasionally, his wife’s business interests) than for any consistent ideology.
The danger of demonstrating such an absence of strong, thoughtful political positions should be kept in mind by Republicans and Democrats alike. It is often better to be principled (and even a tad ideological) to a fault than to be milquetoast by a mile.
Unlike his father, Birch Bayh — whose colorful, meteoric rise from the speakership of the Indiana House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate led to talk of a presidential candidacy in 1972, and who was a leading liberal light in the upper chamber until his dramatic defeat by Dan Quayle in 1980 — Bayh fils has cultivated a reputation as a bland moderate with a penchant for backing bland, family-friendly initiatives such as an unsuccessful measure to promote fatherhood. Blessed with movie-star looks, a polished image as a family man, and his father’s political connections, Bayh parlayed his assets into two terms as Indiana’s governor before winning his father’s old seat in 1998.
Always mindful of how poorly his father’s liberalism played with fellow Hoosiers, Bayh the Younger embraced tax cuts and fiscal conservatism, and voiced his support for the death penalty, which won the attention (and support) of conservatives at the state and national levels. Even as he spent most of his Senate tenure voting with his fellow Democrats — 72 percent of the time in the 111th Congress — Bayh continued to bolster his moderate credentials by serving as chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and bucking his party on such matters as national security. This made him a contender for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 2008. Two years ago, during a conference held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bayh declared: “In an age of global terror, there is nothing more important than protecting the American people. It is a dangerous world.”
Such positioning always drew the ire of such progressives as the Guardian’s Michael Tomasky, who once said Evan was “barely a patch on his illustrious father.” But for years, it played so well with Hoosier voters that Bayh was able to leverage his personal success and build a state Democratic machine that won a majority in Indiana’s lower house, the state’s governorship, and — with protégé Bart Peterson’s 1999 victory as mayor of Indianapolis — control of one of the few big-city governments normally dominated by the Republican party.
But these days, even conservatives have helped make Bayh-bashing the nation’s (and Indiana’s) favorite political sport. Within the past year, Bayh’s support for Obama’s health-care-reform plan — even as he criticized fellow Democrats for fiscal recklessness — has awoken Hoosiers to the reality that his voting record isn’t nearly as conservative as they once believed. The fact that Bayh’s fundraising and finances are heavily dependent on health-insurance and pharmaceutical firms — the main beneficiaries of the health-care-subsidy plan — has made him especially susceptible to charges of hypocrisy and catering to special interests.
Bayh suffered particular ridicule in December after it was revealed that he helped along one health-care-reform plan after securing $100 million for an Indianapolis hospital. Gary Welsh, whose blog Advance Indiana has long been critical of Bayh’s ties to the health-care industry, commented: “I guess Sen. Evan Bayh agreed to support a massive government take-over of the health care industry in exchange for a $100 million give-away.”
Meanwhile, Bayh couldn’t count on his political machine to overcome voter disgust. Starting in 2004, with the defeat of Bayh protégé Joe Kernan by former OMB director Mitch Daniels in the gubernatorial election, Indiana Democrats have suffered a string of reverses. In 2007, Bayh’s former majordomo, Bart Peterson, was defeated in his bid for a third term as Indianapolis mayor by Greg Ballard, a former Army colonel with a mere $500,000 in the bank and almost no support from Republican leaders. A year later, Bayh could barely muster a primary victory for Hillary Clinton during her unsuccessful pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination. That same year, in the gubernatorial primary, Bayh’s choice, Jim Schellinger, fell to defeat at the hands of former congresswoman Jill Long Thompson — who proceeded to lose to Daniels.
Like his fellow red-state Democrats — such as Nebraska’s Ben Nelson — Bayh faces an uncertain future. Even if he decides to seek the Democratic presidential nod, he will likely find little support among Democrats, who are miffed at him for stepping away from the race at the last minute (after he assured them that he was running) and must now scramble to keep his seat out of Republican hands. While his calls for bipartisanship may attract a smattering of independents willing to buy into his moderate pose, he doesn’t have the bold, maverick reputation of either Ross Perot or Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman.
He should have learned from the examples of more polarizing figures: Governor Daniels is winning praise from conservatives and grudging admiration from liberals for taking strong stances and successfully battling Indiana’s ancien régime of politicians and lobbyists. It is better to stand for something than to make a career of straddling the fence.
– RiShawn Biddle, the editor of Dropout Nation, is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era.