You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Sleeper candidate.; Bayh Low

Eschewing the more exotic lunch offerings of the Senate Dining Room,Senator Evan Bayh boldly orders the short ribs with a side ofmacaroni and cheese. "That's what happens when you've goteleven-year-old boys: You get addicted to mac and cheese," heproffers with a self-deprecating smile. From where I sit, thesenator's choice needs no explanation: comforting, unpretentious,mild, quintessentially Middle American, and, yes, more than alittle cheesy.

The Indiana Democrat and I have met to discuss his not-yet-officialrun for the White House: qualifications, priorities, vision,message. But, arguably, the biggest issue on the table is how TeamBayh plans to contend with its man's reputation as the macaroni andcheese of the 2008 race--or, as some of the senator's harshercritics have put it, his dubious distinction as "the most boringman in politics."

Up close and personal, Bayh doesn't come across as boring so much aspreternaturally pleasant and just a little too perfect. Forstarters, there's the look: While some men Bayh's age (he turns 51this month) and in his highly public position might fret abouttheir waistlines, the fit and trim senator hardly resembles a guywith a storied weakness for barbecue and the Dairy Queendrive-thru. His brown hair is never mussed, and his smoothlyhandsome face-- which snagged him a spot on People's "50 MostBeautiful" list a few years back-- belies the stress and pressureof a life spent in the political spotlight, first as the child offormer U.S. Senator and erstwhile presidential candidate BirchBayh, then as a player in his own right. His sunny, blonde wife,Susan, is photo-op perfect (and a lawyer to boot), as are his twineleven-year-old sons, Beau and Nick. He is unfailingly polite andearnest--but not painfully so- -and he has a near-universalreputation for being unflappable. And that soothing voice: It givesone the sensation of being wrapped in gauze, somehow growing evensofter and gentler as he grows more and more impassioned. Gaze uponthe senator for too long and you start to suspect that hidden awayin his attic at home there hangs a large portrait of a Bayh thatgrows older, more wild-eyed, and much, much fatter by the day.

A centrist Democrat who, before joining the Senate, served two termsas governor of a solidly red state, Bayh contends that he isprecisely the sort of sensible, moderate leader that voters cravein these turbulent, Bush-weary times. It's a pitch shored up byrecent events, most notably the November midterms (hailed as avindication of the sensible center) and former Virginia GovernorMark Warner's October secession from the presidential field (whichleft many centrist Dems searching for another horse to back). Factorin Bayh's national security credentials (he is a member of theArmed Services Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence),his gubernatorial record of fiscal restraint, and the wholesoccer-dad thing (the senator looooves to talk about his sons), andBayh ought to have the makings of a serious contender.

Yet, despite his myriad charms, Bayh's prospective candidacy hasgenerated minimal buzz among the political class, beyond hisperpetual mention as a natural for the number-two spot on theticket. What Bayh's fans praise as his aura of calm, competence,and decency, critics deride as dishwater drabness. They say hismanner is too soothing, his politics too cautious, and his personatoo bland. ("I defy you to find one person or group he has everoffended," challenged one longtime Democratic Hill staffer.) Bothinside the Beltway and out in the electoral holy lands of Iowa andNew Hampshire, the consensus is that the senator must get better atshowing that he has "fire in his belly."

To do this, however, Bayh needs to do more than jazz up his publicspeaking. To some degree, his entire life has been a series oflessons about the value of personal and political restraint. Now,if Bayh is to have a real shot at capturing his party's nomination,he'll have to get to work unlearning them.

When discussing Evan Bayh, it's impossible not to draw comparisonsto his legendarily colorful father, former Indiana Senator BirchBayh. A farmer in his pre-political days, Birch was (and still is)an old-school, Great Society Democrat along the lines of GeorgeMcGovern. On the stump, he tended to get a little carried away,especially as his career progressed. When he ran for the WhiteHouse in 1976, Newsweek described his platform as the "politics ofrectitude and wrath (`I'm angry, I'm frustrated, I'm sick andtired')." Birch was a staunch advocate of civil rights, a chiefarchitect of the failed Equal Rights Amendment, and the floorleader in the defeat of two of Richard Nixon's Supreme Courtnominees. A die-hard friend of organized labor, in his 1976campaign he argued for big-government programs like national healthinsurance and expanded unemployment benefits.

His eldest son, by contrast, has always been far more reserved. Theyounger Bayh chalks up the difference largely to his own nature,characterizing himself as "a little bit shyer" and "a more privateperson." But he also acknowledges the impact of growing up in ahigh-profile political household. "Whenever your family's in thespotlight, you have the awareness that, if you do something dumb,it may reflect poorly on your family," he says.

His father was not the only one young Evan would have wanted toavoid embarrassing. Birch may have been the family front man, butEvan's mom, Marvella, was the one who made the proverbial trainsrun on time. In an age when women were overwhelmingly fated tosublimate their own ambitions to their husbands, she was thought bymany to be the smartest, most ambitious, and politically shrewdestBayh. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson asked Marvella to serve asvice chair of the Democratic National Committee. She declined outof concern that it would harm her husband's political prospects, adecision she regarded as the biggest regret of her life. Ahard-charging perfectionist, Marvella agonized over being the idealpolitical wife, from learning how to throw a proper dinner party tostudying key policy issues to making sure that her husband's staffwas performing up to expectations. At times, the strain of tryingto do the right thing--and to do everything exactly right--made herphysically ill, as detailed in her autobiography, Marvella: aPersonal Journey, published in 1979, shortly after her death frombone cancer.

Unsurprisingly, Marvella's exacting nature extended to ensuring thecouple's only child knew how to behave in polite society. In his2003 autobiography, From Father to Son: A Private Life in thePublic Eye, Evan makes repeated reference to his mother's firmhand, her passion for manners, and her concern that he make a goodimpression on the adults around him. ("Children are to be seen andnot heard," she reminded her six-year-old son on their way to visitex- President Harry Truman during Birch's first Senate race.)Raised in such a high- profile household and by two such formidablepersonalities, Evan, say those who know him well, absorbed much ofMarvella's perfectionism and her sense of personal obligation. "Hegrew up in a family that expected him to do the right thing--whichhe did," says Fred Glass, a former gubernatorial chief of staff forBayh.

Evan's relationship with his mother also served to deliver perhapshis most enduring--and enduringly painful-- cautionary tale aboutwhat can happen when one lets emotions come to the surface. Evantook time off from his sophomore year at Indiana University to helpout on his dad's 1976 presidential campaign and was sorelydisappointed when his father's poor showing in the early primariesprompted him to leave the race in March. He subsequently wroteabout the campaign in a college paper, attributing Birch's failureto his late entry into the race and laying the blame for this delayon Marvella's opposition to his running. (Having battled breastcancer just a few years earlier, Marvella was loath to subjectherself and her family to the personal and financial strain of apresidential run.) In From Father to Son, Evan recalls how "deeplyhurt" his mother was when she learned what he had written. "To bejudged harshly--and inaccurately, I now know--by her son was adifficult and hurtful thing. She asked me to sit down with her todiscuss it, which we did. I can only regret that she didn't livelong enough for me to fully recant my thoughts, but it taught me animportant lesson. Words once uttered--even when prompted bytemporary emotion--are hard to ever fully take back. And sometimeslife doesn't give you a chance."

From Birch, meanwhile, Evan received an early lesson in the dangerof outspokenness. Some of his father's more controversial standsearned him death threats--one of which was directly received by a15-year-old Evan, who answered the phone one night when an enragedconservative called the house to threaten Birch over his successfulcrusade against Nixon Supreme Court nominee Harrold Carswell.Nearly a decade later, when the 24-year-old Evan took time off fromthe University of Virginia Law School to chair his dad's Senatereelection campaign, he saw firsthand the potential price ofprinciple. Birch was among a handful of lefty lions targeted by anew group of conservative activists known as the NationalConservative Political Action Committee (ncpac), and he lost hisrace to Dan Quayle--a defeat that both he and Evan later noted washarder on the son than the father. "Ncpac wanted not only to defeata generation of liberals," The New York Times recently recalled ofthe loss, "but also to `send a shiver down the spine of every otherliberal senator and congressman,' as one official put it."

It certainly seems to have sent a shiver down the spine of theyounger Bayh. When, at 32, he ran for governor of Indiana, hecampaigned on conservative- friendly themes like streamlininggovernment and keeping taxes low. His governance was even moreconservative--reforming welfare, cracking down on crime, reining inspending--earning him the moniker "Republicrat" from disgruntledliberals and praise from conservative voices like The Wall StreetJournal.

In Washington, Bayh has grown even more ostentatiously moderate,constantly decrying the partisan squabbling and pitching himself asa results-oriented pragmatist. "Sometimes making progress a step ata time is better than no progress at all," he told the Times backin 1998. But, eight years later, Bayh still hasn't made a name forhimself in any particular legislative area, including his pet issueof promoting responsible fatherhood. He has sponsored plenty ofbills, including the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy FamiliesAct, but none has managed to capture the notice of anyone muchbeyond Bayh's family and a handful of Hill reporters. "How manyyears has he been up here, and what are his accomplishments?" asksthe veteran Hill staffer. "He's made an art of striking a centristposition, but I'm not sure what that amounts to."

As Team Bayh prepares to sell its man to the nation, its strategy isto use his unglamorous status as a "safe" Democrat with "provenred-state appeal" to essentially sneak up on the nomination."Electability" is the overriding theme. (Just try to talk to anyonein Iowa or New Hampshire about Bayh without the "e" wordsurfacing.) The senator himself has become something of abipartisan fetishist, constantly citing the brokenness ofWashington and asserting his ability to "unite Democrats,independents, and reasonable Republicans" to get things done.

From an operational standpoint, even Bayh's competition acknowledgesthat he's doing everything right. His emerging campaignteam--including strategist Anita Dunn and PAC director MarcFarinella--is top notch. His money machine, headed by veteranfund-raiser Nancy Jacobson, has him running a respectable thirdbehind John Kerry and the Hillary juggernaut. For the midterms, hisAll America PAC not only handed out cash to Democratic candidates,it also loaned out staffers and trained and dispatched dozens of"Camp Bayh" volunteers to assist in local races across Indiana,Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond. Bayh, meanwhile, put his politicaljuice on the line to campaign for Democratic candidates in IndianaHouse races, resulting in the ouster of three GOP incumbents. And,just this month, the senator shrewdly opted to announce hispresidential exploratory committee in the midst of confirmationhearings for the new secretary of defense. As a member of the ArmedServices Committee, Bayh was much in demand on television, givinghim ample opportunity to discuss his Oval Office ambitions.

As for Bayh's basic message, GOP pollster and focus-group guru FrankLuntz explains, "People like Bayh's balanced approach. They likethe fact that he's not too left, not too right. He's almost likethe porridge in the Goldilocks story: Just right." Still, likevirtually everyone else, Luntz notes that the voters he'sinterviewed so far want Bayh to "pump it up a notch" and "show someintensity." Observes Tom Courtney, Democratic whip in the IowaSenate, "He's got a sleepy look about him."

Bayh is well-aware of these critiques. And, while the senator andhis people offer up all the predictable dismissals about his notfretting over shallow, stylistic matters and having to be true tohis nature, it's clear that he's working to raise the passion levelon the trail. "It's really fascinating to watch," says one NewHampshire operative who has charted Bayh's course for more than adecade. "Every person turns to me after each trip and goes, `Wow, hewas so much better than he was a year ago.'" Gordon Fisher, formerchairman of the Iowa Democratic party, agrees: "He's putting moreoomph in his speeches."

Sure enough, on the campaign trail for Indiana House candidate BaronHill this fall, Bayh flirted with what could be considered edgyjokes about the nastiness of the opposition's mudslinging: "A lotof these phone calls were being made from India," he told a crowdin mock disbelief. "The people making 'em couldn't even pronouncethe word Hoosier." Bayh is also getting increasingly pointed in hiscriticisms of the Bush administration's Iraq incompetence.("Unacceptable" is how he described the president's blanketassurances of U.S. support to Iraq's prime minister.) And, in jokingabout his White House run against political celebrities likeClinton and Barack Obama, Bayh actually winked at ABC's GeorgeStephanopoulos. "Is this a little bit like David and Goliath? Alittle bit." Wink. "But, as I recall, David did OK."

Even as Bayh's energy level rises, though, the question remains:What, exactly, drives him? "He needs to probably find a couple--andno more than a couple--of signature issues that he can really focuson that folks will remember him for," suggests Iowa poo-bah Fisher."He really needs to be pounding on those issues and showing that hewill fight for those issues." This will prove especially vital inthe primary, agrees one longtime Washington- based operative. "Heneeds to connect with progressives and convince them that there aresome progressive issues he cares more passionately about than hiscompetitors." (Think Bill Clinton and the economy in 1992.)Electability is important, agrees the operative, but he cautions:"The last presidential candidate to try `electability' withoutsomething else was Joe Lieberman."

At our lunch, I try to press Bayh about his passion problem. Withoutmissing a bite, he downplays the question, insisting, "What peoplewant to know is what you care deeply about." So I ask him whatexactly that is. After making a joke about how not even closefamily is interested in the arcana of position papers, he explains,"I love my country, Michelle. We are a great nation. We can begreater still. But the thought that we may be letting it slip awaybothers the heck out of me. And the notion that we can leave ourchildren a better world, I find to be uplifting and exciting." (Onthe word "exciting," his voice drops so low as to be almostinaudible.) "And, if I'm in a position to do something about that,well then, by God, I should. Because I think that's the mostimportant thing that all of us can do with our lives. What can we doto help our kids, our communities, our country, and those who willone day follow us? For me, it's about our country and it's about mychildren. What can we do to create a better world for both?"

It is, in many respects, an eloquent response: patriotic, paternal,and heartfelt. So much so, in fact, that one could almost fail tonotice that Bayh has smoothly, pleasantly, and oh so carefullydeclined to answer the question.