Senate in Evan Bayh's genes, not in his blood
By GLENN THRUSH & JONATHAN MARTIN
02/15/10 8:15 PM EST
Evan Bayh speaks with reporters after a news conference on Monday where he announced that he will not seek re-election, a decision that has Democrats accusing him of desertion.
In 1996, Evan Bayh seemed to be on the verge of Democratic stardom as a popular, 40-year-old Indiana governor whose gravitas and squeaky-clean good looks earned him the keynote speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
But that Chicago speech — memorable now for just how forgettable it was — had the opposite effect of the electrifying keynote address Barack Obama delivered eight years later.
On paper, Bayh seemed like an ideal national Democratic candidate: attractive, bright and moderate enough to attract Midwestern voters, with the fundraising connections of the Eastern prep school student he was.
But Bayh’s career never quite jelled, and the Chicago speech effectively rendered him an afterthought two years before his election to the Senate.
“His high-water mark was that speech, and he flopped, and that killed the buzz about him being a serious presidential contender,” said Brian Vargus, a longtime Indiana University politics professor who has closely followed Bayh’s career for more than two decades.
“That was it for the presidential stuff,” one longtime Bayh confidant said of that moment 13-plus years ago.
Bayh’s stunning decision to call it quits rather than brave a perilous reelection campaign marks not only an exit from a Senate he’s never much loved but also the end of a once-promising national political career that never quite lived up to the hype.
The scion of Indiana’s most famous Democratic family twice made it onto the shortlist of vice presidential contenders — first in 2004, when he was briefly considered as John Kerry’s running mate, and then in 2008, when Obama gave him a longer look before tapping Joe Biden.
Now Bayh finds himself the subject of scorn from Democrats, who accuse him of abandoning his party and his colleagues at a time when they desperately need him to help save their suddenly imperiled majority in the Senate.
“He’s finished,” said one Democratic political consultant active in national races. “His party needed him to stay and fight, and he ran away. People won’t forget.”
Bayh’s father, Birch, a longtime liberal senator from Indiana, was a consummate legislator who served in a different era, a time when bipartisan deal making was the rule.
Bayh the younger, who was reared in Washington and schooled at St. Albans, was always attracted to the executive branch and was elected as Indiana’s secretary of state at age 30 before embarking on two highly successful terms as governor.
Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, who was Bayh’s chief of staff at the statehouse, said his old boss was always a governor at heart.
“So I suspected, and perhaps in his heart of hearts he suspected, that he might not find the Senate quite the same as being a governor,” Peterson said. “Those frustrations have increasingly worn on him, and I think his willingness to tolerate the frustrations has decreased over time.”
Fred Nation, an adviser to Birch Bayh who later served as Evan Bayh’s spokesman during his eight years in the governor’s mansion, said the Senate wasn’t the right fit for him.
“Birch was always a legislator, but Evan was always attracted to the executive, so the move to the Senate was a tough, tough transition,” said Nation, who picked up no clue that Bayh was planning to step down when the pair had lunch in Indianapolis two weeks ago.
Nation said Evan Bayh has always been obsessed with not repeating the mistakes of his father, who lost in 1980 after failing to raise enough money to defeat Republican Dan Quayle.
“He was really upbeat. He said that he had about $13 million in the bank but that he needed to raise $3 million or $4 million more just to be safe,” added Nation. “He was greatly influenced by the 1980 election, by what happened to Birch. Evan Bayh has always been intent on never having a race against an opponent who had more money than he did.”
The Bayh who gave the keynote speech in 1996 was finishing his second and final term as Indiana governor — eight years in which Hoosiers saw new jobs and lower taxes.
Arriving in the nation’s capital near the end of the Clinton era, Bayh seemed to be the picture of the Democratic future: a centrist from a conservative-leaning state with a golden political pedigree and a wife and twin sons who seemed made for a Christmas card.
From his election in 1998, though, it seemed his chief political interest was in how quickly he could get out of the Senate.
Just a year after his arrival, he was being talked about as a possible running mate for Vice President Al Gore. Then came Kerry, and then came Obama, and nothing came of either possibility.
After Bayh briefly mounted a presidential campaign ahead of the 2008 cycle that went nowhere, it became clear that his only path to the presidency would be through a four- or eight-year hitch at the Naval Observatory.
The Senate, on the other hand, seemed to offer a labyrinth of frustrated political aspirations and policy objections.
“Two weeks ago, the Senate voted down a bipartisan commission to deal with one of the greatest threats facing our nation: our exploding deficits and debt. The measure would have passed, but seven members who had endorsed the idea instead voted no for short-term political reasons,” Bayh said Monday.
“All of this and much more has led me to believe that there are better ways to serve my fellow citizens, my beloved state and our nation than continued service in Congress.”