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Evan Bayh's political crossroads



Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh is at a political crossroads. Photo by Nikki Kahn of the Washington Post

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh's vote this week in favor of an amendment to the health care bill that would have strengthened restrictions on how federal funds could be spent for abortions is the latest sign that the one-time national rising star has reached a crossroads in a political career that was long expected to end in the White House.

On Tuesday, Bayh joined with seven other Democrats to cross party lines on the abortion funding measure, a vote that many liberal interest groups cast as an open attempt to erode the legal rights of women.

It's one in a series of votes cast by the Indiana Democrat that have drawn the ire of the party establishment -- Bayh was one of just three Democrats to vote against the $410 billion omnibus spending bill earlier this year and he has been an outspoken critic of the President Obama's "cap and trade" bill -- and cemented his status as an apostate in the eyes of the Democratic base.

According to the Washington Post's votes database, which measures how often a politician votes with the majority of his party, Bayh is the most conservative Democratic Senator in the 111th Congress -- voting with the Democratic majority just 72 percent of the time.

(By comparison, Bayh voted with his party's majority nearly 84 percent of the time in the 110th Congress when he was being considered for the vice presidential pick and nearly 91 percent of the time in the 109th Congress when he was considering a presidential run of his own.)

While Bayh seems to be trying to embrace the role of the loyal opposition within his party -- he helped form a group of moderate/conservative Senators earlier this year -- it is a role that virtually ensures he will not be a serious candidate for national office down the line.

Moderates don't tend to win presidential nominations -- see Lieberman, Joe or Giuliani, Rudy -- and, having been seriously considered for vice president and then passed over twice in the last eight years, it's hard to see the next Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 putting Bayh on his or her short list.

The seeming end of Bayh's national ambitions -- at least if his voting record is any guide -- marks a fascinating turn of events for a man born into electoral politics.

The only son of Marvella and late Sen. Birch Bayh, a presidential candidate in his own right, Evan Bayh was governor of the Hoosier State by 32. Following a eight-year tenure that drew raves from many people inside and outside Indiana, Bayh effortlessly moved into the Senate in 1998 -- winning with 64 percent -- and has been entirely unchallenged since then.

That fast rise -- Bayh is only 53 years old -- is both a blessing and a curse. Bayh, at his relatively young age, has achieved more than most politicians do in a lifetime but he also has already risen and fallen as a potential national candidate well before most politicians ever even begin to be talked about for those highest office

All of which means that Bayh doesn't have an obvious next step in politics. It's why he seriously considered retiring in 2010 -- senior Democratic officials acknowledge they were genuinely concerned he might step aside -- before ultimately deciding to seek a third term in 2010.

Bayh will, as he has throughout his political life, coast to victory next November thanks to his popularity in the Hoosier state, the weakness of his Republican opponents and his massive -- $13 million -- campaign warchest.

But, his political future is cloudier than it has ever been before. Bayh's challenge over the next few years will be to transition from would-be national candidate to influential centrist voice within the Senate. Given his age and relative seniority within the body, Bayh could emerge as a serious Senate force over the coming decades if he is truly committed to doing so.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 9, 2009; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

Interesting to see that others have also drawn the analogy to Ted Kennedy. There are obvious differences in ideology, personal life, etc., but the key similarity would be a conscious decision to build a distinguished, major career within the Senate that would ultimately have a greater cumulative effective on United States history (or arguably would) than one or two terms as president.

While I favor Kennedy's brand of Democratic policies (although I admire both Kennedy and Bayh as leaders), I am heartened by this analogy. Much of the obituary writing about Kennedy suggested his career path and contributions could never happen again today and reflected a past era. Wouldn't it be great if the institution of the Senate was more robust than that, and such careers could continue to emerge?

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | December 10, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Considering this column is considering HoF's for non presidential politicians, boring or otherwise, it seems sad to think that being too vanilla for presidential aspirations means one has no future in the halls of power. Thomas Reed, Champ Summers, Henry Clay, (or John Randolph, who still eyes him in distrust) Mike Mansfield, John McCormack, Tip O'Neil, and of course Sam Rayburn were men of great import and well used power, and most shared with Bayh an unsuitability to being nominated, and elected, to the Presidency.

At 53 Evan is just getting to the age and seniority where he can be one of the great leaders of the Senate. If it is power that impels him he is at the point where whatever committee he gets will be "The Powerful".

If he wants out of the Senate it ought not be because he will never be Vice President.

Better to live to be President Pro Tem than Vice President.

If for no other reason then you have to live that long.

Posted by: ceflynline | December 9, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse


dude... think about it, you cannot control women. You don't own them. You did once but they represent half the population in political power. Abortion is a personal choice of women have secured for themselves. Men cannot use some sort of magical guy in the clouds to turn half the population into birthing vessels. And to use it as a moral billy stick in which to beat on women is the lowest form of abuse. You are a sanctimoneous creep....

Posted by: angriestdogintheworld | December 9, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this post, CC. I found EB's change in voting pattern illuminating -- just the opposite of Arlen Specter.

Maybe Lugar will take the junior Senator from IN under his wing, as he was doing with BHO.

Posted by: mnteng | December 9, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Another mediocrity clammering for attention by beating the deadest horse in politics.

Yeah, vital news.

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | December 9, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Dont feel bad, dude. I couldn'
t figure out who BG was either.

Posted by: elijah24 | December 9, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Barry Goldwater! Margaret, you're a genius!

(I was counting back to Warren Harding and I couldn't figure out who Mark was talking about).

Posted by: Bondosan | December 9, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

I meant that for you DDawd. Mark knows if he meant Barry Goldwater or Boy George.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | December 9, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

On the right, Reagan was definitely not a moderate. Kerry and Mondale were liberals. I see Bush 43 and Obama in similar terms--both ran as moderates, but have governed as a conservative and a liberal, respectively. Bush 43 is a little trickier in that No Child and expansion of Medicare run counter to conservative notions. In social, legal, and defense matters, a muscular conservative. Obama has been pragmatic, but his big issues are liberal.

Of the viable candidates on offer in 2008, both Romney and Huckabee ran as conservatives. Obama ran to Clinton's left, though there wasn't that much substantively different between the two. Edwards was the more viable liberal candidate.

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 9, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

@Mark in Austin: I had to ransack my head but I think it's Barry Goldwater. That or Boy George -- who WAS sparkly, you gotta admit.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | December 9, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Addendum to scrivener post, below:

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See "comments" section at:

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Posted by: scrivener50 | December 9, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Evan Bayh's positions on health care reform are compromised by his wife, Susan's, position on the board of WellPoint. When he is sabotaging reform, is he doing more than protecting family business interests?

Posted by: bruf | December 9, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Bayh is an effing idiot and is still pissed off because he's (THANKFULLY) not the VP.

Posted by: smh3477 | December 9, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

"I do know is that Birch Bayh is IMO one of the 4 greatest senators in the last 100 years. On his worst day, the most critical thing I could say of him is that he was a great statesman. On Evans best day, the kindest words I have for him would be that he is the son of a truly great man."

Nicely put.

I think Evan is more of a triangulator, a politician. His father was a statesman.

Posted by: drindl | December 9, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

"EB cannot be presidential material because he oozes boring, not because he votes the party line a mere 70% of the time. If he "sparkled" he could be the nominee. That is how American politics works. I know that non-sparklers often get the nomination, but not when they are opposed by sparklers, I think. JFK was not in LBJ's league as a Senator or a politician, but LBJ was not in JFK's league as a sparkler. BG was a sparkler. RWR was a sparkler, WJC and BHO were sparklers. Now GWB got to run against Gore and Kerry, so boring v. boring led to near ties at the polls.

Posted by: mark_in_austin"

Usually I can figure these out, but I'm stumped. Who in the world is BG?

Posted by: DDAWD | December 9, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

"I worked for the Senator's father and he would be proud of his son for being a true Democrat not a fob of his party !"
==
It's funny you should mention Senator Bayh (Birch that is, Evan will not be referred to with that much reverence from me). I staffed the elder when he was touring Indiana for then-Senator Obama.
I would never claim to have been close enough to him to know what he really feels toward his son, but the impression I got when his name was brought up was not that he was particularly proud. He clearly loves his son, and is proud of his rise, but he tends to recoil when people talk about him as a centrist.
It is entirely possible that I am projecting my own opinions of Evan onto Birch. What I do know is that Birch Bayh is IMO one of the 4 greatest senators in the last 100 years. On his worst day, the most critical thing I could say of him is that he was a great statesman. On Evans best day, the kindest words I have for him would be that he is the son of a truly great man.

Posted by: elijah24 | December 9, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Chris,

This is an enormously well thought out piece. You show the 'pockmarks as well as the dimples' (to employ a Japanese expression) in Sen. Bayh's character and persona--rare for such a short entry.

One tends to pity--rather than excoriate--him, quite unlike that matched pair of Quislings Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter. Unlike the popular media impression of him, I have tended not to find him colourless or lacking in personality; merely short on the histrionics on which the media (me included) tend to thrive. For a politician, my own impression is that Bayh is more principled than opportunistic.

Sen. Bayh has held most of the elctoral offices other than President or Vice-President, yet he's not a 'good fit' for the either party. Perhaps he should retire and become the elder statesman, despite his relatively young age?

Minus the tragedy (and perhaps the scope), he comes across as rather a Hamlet-like figure.

Posted by: sverigegrabb | December 9, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

BB and bsimon - I guess

"Moderates don't tend to win presidential nominations"

means that in '08 Kucinich and Tancredo were the nominees.
-----------------------
EB cannot be presidential material because he oozes boring, not because he votes the party line a mere 70% of the time. If he "sparkled" he could be the nominee. That is how American politics works. I know that non-sparklers often get the nomination, but not when they are opposed by sparklers, I think. JFK was not in LBJ's league as a Senator or a politician, but LBJ was not in JFK's league as a sparkler. BG was a sparkler. RWR was a sparkler, WJC and BHO were sparklers. Now GWB got to run against Gore and Kerry, so boring v. boring led to near ties at the polls.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | December 9, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Here's some simple electoral math Sen. Bayh may be considering.

Take a scale from 1 (most Liberal) to 100 (most Conservative).

Republicans have steadily moved closer to 100. To be charitable, let's say they're at 80, or 60% of the way to being ultra-conservative.

Let's also say Indiana is a conservative leaning state with a mean score for the population of 65.

To get elected as a Democrat in Indiana, Bayh needs to project an image closer to that 65 than the Repblicans, so he's going to aim for a slightly conservative 60 to make sure he gets more of the middle of the Bell curve than Republicans, though this puts him well to the right of most Democrats nationally.

This applies relatively equally to any Democrat or Republican in a district that leans away from their party.

The choice is between allowing a large array of differences within the party and controlling big majorities in both Houses of Congress (like the Democrats) or insisting on ideological purity and, while having a more unified party, being a marginalized minority (Republicans).

Complaints about conservative Democrats blocking some of the more progressive agendas notwithstanding, I don't think they will soon try to excommunicate any more conservatives after the debacle they experienced trying to oust Lieberman (or the subsequent example of how to lose a seat through attempted purity held by one party for over a century in NY-23).

Posted by: Gallenod | December 9, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I don't see how Bayh is a 'centrist' or what that even means. Mainly, he is a pawn of industry. Maybe that's exactly what 'centrist' is.

Posted by: drindl | December 9, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

BAYH WHAT MEASURE?

Birch Bayh stood up for liberal causes as a good Kennedy-Humphrey Democrat, as I recall.

What does Evan stand for? Restricting women's reproductive rights isn't a great way to build a base as a Democrat. Bob Casey did it in Pennsylvania by embracing liberal positions on economic and social justice issues. Will Bayh take the hint?

***

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OR NowPublic.com/scrivener RE: "GESTAPO USA" -- Also see, "GOV'T TORTURES ME WITH SILENT MICROWAVE WEAPONS, SAYS EX-HONNDURAS PREZ"

Posted by: scrivener50 | December 9, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I worked for the Senator's father and he would be proud of his son for being a true Democrat not a fob of his party !

Posted by: mct1 | December 9, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

"Very interesting story, though I have one quibble. Moderates often win nominations--see Clinton, Bill; Bush, George HW; Dole, Bob; McCain, John."


You forgot Obama, Barack.


.

Posted by: bsimon1 | December 9, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I know there are ideological differences (nearly polar differences within the spectrum of the Democratic party), but I can't help but draw a Kennedy comparison after reading this. After the Presidency was no longer a realistic option, he was able to turn his full attention to the Senate and become the legend we all remember - as Bayh now has the opportunity to do.

Posted by: thisisimpossible | December 9, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Very interesting story, though I have one quibble. Moderates often win nominations--see Clinton, Bill; Bush, George HW; Dole, Bob; McCain, John.

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 9, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

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