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Monday, 15 February 2010 04:11

Evan Bayh's Sudden Retirement: Far More Questions Than Answers

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by Meg White

With the news of Sen. Evan Bayh's retirement at the end of his term this year breaking this morning catching pundits off-guard across the nation, readers should prepare themselves for a barrage of speculation. Not to be left out of the fun, I'm wondering if this announcement (which is already being branded as bad news for Democrats)shouldn't be looked at from a vantage point outside of the two major parties.

Barring another surprise announcement along the lines of an apology or checking into rehab, I'd say this isn't the last we'll hear of Bayh on the political scene. In his prepared statement, the junior senator from Indiana said the following about his future, insisting that the retirement was not due to political machinations:

I can best contribute to society in another way: creating jobs by helping grow a business, helping guide an institution of higher learning or helping run a worthy charitable endeavor.

But when he denied a political motive, it was merely the motive of being spared an election loss, not the motive of seeking a higher office:

My decision was not motivated by political concern... Even in the current challenging environment, I am confident in my prospects for reelection.

While it's true that Bayh was doing quite well in the polls, he certainly hadn't been taking the race sitting down. He'd recently gone into attack mode on his presumed opponent, former lawmaker Dan Coats. Politico called it a "withering, no-holds-barred assault on the former Republican senator, throwing him off balance and raising questions about whether his prospective candidacy has suffered lasting damage."

Why would Bayh team up with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) to unleash such a coordinated attack -- all before Coats could even hire a campaign spokesman to push back at the onslaught -- if he was planning to retire?

Sources cited by Atlantic Monthly framed the retirement decision as one that had been a long time coming. So what was all the electoral activity inspired by? And is the DSCC feeling some buyer's remorse after dumping all that money into a race they may very well lose only because Bayh is dropping out of it?

Looking at the facts, I'd be surprised if Bayh didn't run for president. He's relatively young, attractive and he's run for president before. He's done the whole executive thing as governor of Indiana; in fact, his whole problem with the Senate appears to have been how he sees himself as more of an executive doer than a legislator.

Bayh could easily position himself as a centrist possibility in 2016. If Obama wins his reelection in 2012, the Democratic Party may be more amenable to going centrist to avoid the backlash against the party that's been in the White House for eight years. Of course, his prospects (along with nearly every other Democrat now eying the Oval Office) are better if Obama loses in 2012. Call it the "grass is always greener" voting booth tendency, but we do like to mix things up every four to eight years.  

So there's that possibility. Or, with his centrist bona fides, Bayh has other options. He's made clear his opposition to several key Obama initiatives lately. Would Bayh run for president as a third party candidate, or -- gasp -- on the Republican ticket?

He seems to have seen the writing on the wall, so to speak, after the Massachusetts Senate loss late last month. Even before the votes were tallied,Bayh was warning Democrats of what the loss would portend for future elections. From ABC's The Note:

“The only we are able to govern successfully in this country is by liberals and progressives making common cause with independents and moderates,”Bayh said. “Whenever you have just the furthest left elements of the Dem party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country -- that’s not going to work too well.”

The "Dem party"? Bayh sure sounds like he's stretching out in preparation for an independent run.

Bayh's no tea partier, but he's not a rank and file Dem, either. His lifelong commitment to lean government and low taxes makes him a natural for the libertarian streak running through various populist movements searching for a leader who doesn't sound crazy. If the tea baggers are smart -- and I'm not saying they are -- they'll snap up Bayh in a New York minute.