Monday, February 15, 2010

Bayh's Legacy Will Be Mixed

This morning, word came that Evan Bayh was leaving the political stage for now. At this time, we don't know what his future plans will be or even if he has any at this point. I am assuming that this is likely not the last time we will see the 54-year-old Indiana Democratic Grand Poobah. Let's face it, what Bayh says goes still here in Indiana. If he chooses to stay involved, I don't think that will change anytime soon.

By now, you know his story. The son of Birch Bayh, a former U.S. Senator who remains extraordinarily popular, Bayh was seemingly groomed for a life in public. He was elected Secretary of State in 1986 and then served as Governor for two terms from 1989-1997. In 1998, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. That's where things get murky.

By now, many would have thought that Bayh would have made a serious run at the White House, and he flirted with the idea. He pulled out well before things got interesting in 2008. Sure, he nearly became the Vice President as the choice came down to him and Senator Joe Biden in 2008 for President Obama, but he got the job basically by staying out of everybody's way and not rocking the boat in the Senate. As a Senator, Bayh eschewed the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and instead went right to the the middle. Sometimes, he even leaned a little to the right of the Republican Senior Senator from Indiana, Richard Lugar.

Even after 12 years, Bayh cannot point to too much in the way of accomplishments as a Senator. He became a member of the leadership on the Democratic side quickly, but he found himself more recently as the target of progressive anger when it was revealed that he voted against the Obama Administration more than any other Democrat. As a Senator, Bayh was flat out wrong on many of his positions, in my view. He left his base and tried to forge new turf in the middle knowing that his personal popularity would carry him. Bayh, like Lugar for Democrats, was always the Democratic politician from the opposite party that Republicans could feel good about voting for.

What people forget is that Evan Bayh was an extremely effective Governor and executive. Sure, he didn't do everything right, but his fiscal conservatism fit well with Hoosier values. He didn't raise taxes as Governor and passed the largest tax cut in state history while maintaining surpluses and increasing school funding. He moved welfare recipients off the rolls and put them to work and championed the 21st Century Scholars program that has sent thousands of Hoosiers to college. When he handed the keys of the Governor's Office to his Lieutenant Governor, Frank O'Bannon, who won election with Bayh's help in 1996, the state was in tremendous shape.

Bayh was unstoppable at that time scaring away Dan Coats, the sitting Senator, and walking to a win by record margins over popular Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke. The Republicans only could muster perennial candidate Marvin Scott to run against Bayh in 2004. None of this year's candidates really strike fear in the heart of Democrats, but now, expect it to get bloody on the Republican side. The rubber meets the road tomorrow at noon when signatures are due. Who will get the requisite 500 signatures from the nine Indiana Congressional Districts remains to be seen.

Now, Bayh walks away. He closes the chapter on his Senate career and looks to what's next. Maybe nothing is next for him. Then again, maybe there is another run in his future. Nothing would surprise me. The pool for Governor in 2012 is getting crowded. Bayh taking a dip there would clear things out a bit. Maybe Bayh's thinking about another run at President. Who knows? One thing's for sure, Evan Bayh never does anything that isn't politically calculated. His leaving the race just before the filing deadline allows the Indiana Democratic Party to appoint his successor. If you don't think that Dan Parker's phone will be on and waiting for Bayh's phone call on the issue, then I have some nice ocean front property for you near French Lick.

The decision seems strange now, but we will perhaps see things more clearly soon. Like many Democrats, I had my doubts about Senator Bayh. He frustrated me with his conservative, blue dog views. They weren't necessarily in line with mine all the time. Still, I congratulate him on his service, and take my hat off to him. Indiana politics will be a little strange without Evan Bayh in the middle of it all. Then again, I don't think it will be long until he's back.

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