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The Bayh boomlet

National | POLITICS: A liberal Massachusetts Democrat like John Kerry could use a ticket-balancing moderate: Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana

Issue: "Remaking the family," March 6, 2004

Evan Bayh, Indiana's Democratic U.S. senator, may be somewhere near the top of the list of vice presidential prospects. His Midwest roots could prove to be more important to front-runner John Kerry than the South in an attempt to unseat President Bush. Though he looks moderate in the Indiana political context, Sen. Bayh is one of the most conservative prominent Democrats on the national scene.

Sen. Bayh's name pops up in most of the recent political stories about Sen. Kerry's choice for a running mate. His name appears to have first been mentioned for vice president in the national media in a New York Times story last September, as reporter Adam Nagrourney speculated that several presidential candidates might wind up being considered for vice president. The son of another U.S. senator from Indiana, Birch Bayh, Evan Bayh clearly has harbored presidential aspirations, but at the age of 49 he faces no biological rush to seek the top office. His father, more liberal than the son, made a brief run for the presidency in 1976 and lost his Indiana Senate seat to Dan Quayle in 1980.

Clearly, Sen. Kerry will consider other names. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina could represent some geographic balance. His record is not quite as conservative as Sen. Bayh's, but he understands the cultural conservatism of the South and would balance Sen. Kerry's Northeastern roots as much as Sen. Bayh. If a Midwestern strategy is adopted, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is not an option because she was born in Canada. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack might be considered, along with U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would bring some diversity as the first Hispanic on a national ticket.

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But in terms of ideological balance, Sen. Bayh could claim to be about as conservative as any other national Democrat, including Sen. Joe Lieberman. Sen. Bayh was a leading critic of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for sounding the trumpet too softly in national security matters. In the Senate and as governor, Sen. Bayh has been a family-values advocate, highlighting the importance of fatherhood and the two-parent family for the benefit of children. His first move in the Senate in 1999 was legislation to promote fatherhood. As governor of Indiana, he led the way for welfare reform, with a new emphasis on work.

At times he could sound as conservative as his Republican opponents: Then-Gov. Bayh shut down work-release programs after an inmate out on a weekend pass killed his wife. He also took smaller symbolic steps that painted a cultural conservative image. He told state government bureaucrats to put Gideon Bibles back in state park inns, after they were removed on church-state separation grounds. He banned alcoholic beverages at public gatherings in the governor's residence, because of potential liability lawsuits and the tragic impact of alcohol abuse he had seen in his own family. From the perspective of many Christian conservatives his major weakness is his "pro-choice" emphasis on the abortion issue. Along with other moderate Democrats, however, he did vote for a ban on partial-birth abortions in the Senate.

Sen. Bayh's impact in Indiana politics also could appeal to Democrats. Since 1988 many Southern states have moved from Democratic Party dominance to Republican Party takeovers. He moved Indiana in the opposite direction, reviving a competitive two-party system. He broke the GOP monopoly with a victory for secretary of state in 1986, then won the governor's race in 1988 and 1992. About the only miracle that eluded him was assembling a majority of Democrats in the state Senate.

The other miracle he cannot likely perform is turning the state to a Democratic presidential candidate. That only seems to occur in Democratic presidential landslides, with Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. But only Jesus could walk on water and likely is the only one who could run as a Democratic presidential candidate and win a majority in Indiana.

A century ago Indiana often had a native son from either party on the presidential ticket, because it was a swing state that both parties wanted to win. Now the state is firmly entrenched in the Republican corner in presidential elections. Sen. Bayh's selection would represent Indiana's first Democratic Party representation on the national ticket since Thomas Marshall served as vice president under President Woodrow Wilson, nearly a century ago.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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