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For civility's sake

Politics | Evan Bayh may be stepping aside to avoid the mudslinging, but some predict he'll return

INDIANAPOLIS-Evan Bayh didn't have the stomach for a knock-down, drag-out fight for the U.S. Senate with Republican Dan Coats. That speaks well of 54-year-old, two-term senator and fits with the civil nature he has maintained in his 25 years dominating Indiana politics.

He came on the scene as a young, respectful candidate for the state's secretary of state in 1986. He had the famous family name, from his more liberal father Birch, the U.S. senator who had run for president.

The younger Bayh also had a charisma, a charm that voters liked. He resurrected the state Democratic Party that had been shut out of winning statewide elections for a decade.

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His commitment to personal civility was sincere and complete. Politically he searched for middle ground, as Indiana's governor and as a U.S. senator. He thought family values were important and helped his party challenge the 1980s Republican monopoly on that topic. He did not raise taxes as governor.

He could appeal to the right and left in a gifted way, but he never could sell it in the Democratic presidential primaries. He also lost the vice presidency to Joe Biden. Had Barack Obama forged a real partnership with Bayh, the president might be in less of a mess today.

True to his personal character, Bayh did not want to get down in the mud with Dan Coats. Bayh's allies were throwing the mud, to position Coats as a carpetbagging lobbyist. Bayh knew that Republicans would fire back with photos of his expensive home on the beach in Delaware and questions about his wife's board memberships.

He and Coats could have had a great civil campaign, Lincoln-Douglas debates across Indiana. Instead, Bayh's team panicked when Coats jumped into the race and tried to link the Republican with South American dictators.

Now Evan Bayh is taking a sabbatical as the most influential Democrat in Indiana history.

He has a little competition for that honor. His father won three elections to the U.S. Senate, after becoming a young speaker of the state House of Representatives in 1959. Yet his father was never such a dominating influence in Indiana politics, losing the support of the conservative wing of his party. His son, in contrast, enlarged the Democratic Party tent, attracting liberal support through fond memories of his father. He held the Blue Dog wing because he was the leader of it.

Further back in history a few Indiana Democrats might have been as influential, but for shorter periods.

Gov. Paul V. McNutt was a Depression-era governor, 1933-37, building up the patronage-based political machine that Evan Bayh dismantled as governor. McNutt was a strong presidential candidate in 1940 until Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted a third term.

Bayh may not be retiring. State Rep. Phil Hinkle, R-Indianapolis, and former state House Speaker John Gregg, a Democrat, both think Bayh might want to run for governor again in 2012.

"He likes to call the shots," said Hinkle. "The governor's race is the perfect place for him to step back in."

Beyond that could be a presidential run in 2016. He'll only be 60 years old.

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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