The Magazine

Evan Bayh, Tough Chooser

Another senator who’s too good for Washington.

Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Evan’s disgust at contemporary Washington politics, like his memory of political history, is necessarily selective. Bayh grew up in Washington and has spent his professional life in government—“public service” is the preferred term—and like many government lifers he has boasted of its low pay and impoverishing effects. Yet Washington politics offers ways for our public servants to avoid the poorhouse. Bayh’s wife, a former lawyer for the drugmaker Eli Lilly, has tracked her husband’s rise in power and influence by becoming a “professional director” on about a dozen corporate boards. 

It’s nice work if you can get it, and the husbands and wives of senators can get it if they try, and they don’t have to try very hard. Most companies are delighted to have the spouse of a national legislator on their board of directors, even when, or especially when, the couples refute any suggestion of conflict of interest, as the Bayhs do, by simply denying it. In 2007, Sylvia Smith of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette did the math and discovered that Mrs. Bayh, working no more than 36 weeks a year, was making well over a million dollars annually from her directorships. Politics may be broken, but that doesn’t mean politicians have to go broke.

Bayh complains, as Tough Choosers do, about the low tone of our political discourse, but he can fling the partisan poo as well as the most highly paid party gorilla—a Begala, say, or even a Carville. As a passionate centrist, a tough-minded moderate, he of course voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He abandoned his support a year later, when he discovered to his horror that some of the people involved in the invasion might actually get hurt. In an arm-waving address at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Bayh expressed his revulsion by leveling a charge of negligent homicide at George Bush and Richard Cheney: “Our brave soldiers were killed because of their reckless incompetence.”

Bayh’s relationship to the Iraq war—being both for it and against it​—​demonstrates how a man cultivates a reputation for fierce independence and nonpartisanship, thus earning the admiration of a press corps that likewise fancies itself to be fiercely independent and nonpartisan. Bayh’s specialty is the rightward feint. He showed it first in Washington during the Clinton impeachment trial, when anonymous press reports suggested that the new senator from Indiana might buck his party and boldly vote against President Clinton. He didn’t. He publicly puzzled over whether to buck his party and boldly support the nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, then didn’t. More recently, last December, he did buck his party and boldly voted against raising the government’s debt limit; the next month, he voted with his party to raise the debt limit. Last year he gave bold speeches against government spending while voting for the auto bailout, the health care “public option,” and the $787 billion stimulus package.

In practice, in other words, Evan Bayh is just a reliable, conventional, loyal Democrat. Nothing wrong with that! In his reputation, however, Bayh has wanted to be so much more. When he says he’s not satisfied with politics as usual, he really means it. So he’s become a Tough Chooser. With the forelock tugging, the tortured rumination, the joint resolutions with John McCain and Olympia Snowe, the lectures to his colleagues about the tough choices they refuse to face, he can live rhetorically, in a realm of pure possibility. 

In the realm of politics, though, you have to choose. You have to join the side you’re on. You have to make the tough decisions. Which is why the Tough Choosers always quit.

 Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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