15 February 2010

Stunner: Bayh to retire

We've used the word "unspinnable" here before -- and it's more appropriate now than ever.

Unbelievably, one of the country's most moderate, most respected Democrats has announced he will retire rather seek re-election in what was shaping up to be the fight of his political career.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, winding down his second term in the Senate after eight years as governor, will step aside just weeks after former Republican Sen. Dan Coats -- whom Bayh replaced in 1998 -- announced his candidacy as Bayh's Republican challenger.

This is flat-out stunning on several levels.

First, Bayh was among the finalists for Barack Obama's vice-presidential nomination in 2008 -- along with Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Kathleen Sebelius and eventual nominee Joe Biden. Just 18 months ago, his stock had never been higher, as a well-respected old-time Democrat (his father, Birch, was a three-term senator from Indiana) and possible presidential nominee in 2016. In fact, according to Obama adviser David Plouffe, the choice between Bayh and Biden was "a coin flip."

Second, Bayh is enormously popular in his home state. After winning the governorship in 1988 by a 53-46 margin, Bayh stormed to re-election in 1992 with 62% of the vote. Upon running for Coats' vacated Senate seat in 1998, Bayh defeated his Republican challenger 64-34, and won re-election in 2004 by a 62-37 margin. He has eclipsed 60% in three consecutive statewide elections. Despite the troublesome political environment for Democrats nationwide, even the most optimistic GOP partisans had trouble finding reasons that Bayh would be voted out. It is impossible to overstate Bayh's popularity.

Third, Bayh's tremendous popularity is derived, in part, from his centrist voting record. A staunch deficit hawk and member of the Senate Armed Services committee, he has emerged, along with Jim Webb and Carl Levin, as one of the most respected voices in the Democratic caucus on foreign policy. As the congressional leadership attempted to steer his party hard to the left, Bayh emerged as a voice of moderation in the Democratic caucus, aligning with Ben Nelson and the Blue Dogs in attempting to nudge his party back toward the center. Bayh was nothing if not an independent voice among a party of increasingly loud shrieks for extremism.

No matter what Bayh says, this decision was undoubtedly motivated by the toxic political environment which the Democrats have created for themselves. The fact that perhaps the most moderate, popular Democrat in the country has decided to step aside is mind-blowing. The Democratic Party is in even deeper trouble than before, and Republicans should be licking their chops looking forward to November. With Bayh out of the picture and the popular Coats looming as the new favorite, it is reasonable to begin asking whether the GOP can actually recapture the Senate in 2010.

Given Bayh's stellar resume and relatively young age (he will be 55 in December), we have not heard the last from this good and honorable man from Indiana. In November 2016, he will be just 60, and it is reasonably likely that the Democratic Party could attempt to moderate itself as it did in 1992, in which case Bayh will be one of the front-runners.

But for now, the missteps of the Obama administration have cost the Democrats one of their best.

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