Cautious Bayh could define the president who flipped a coin

Fair enough. After two terms in the Senate, Evan Bayh’s station centers on fatherhood and that of a deficit hawk. But the Congressional Budget Office estimate on Chairman Max Baucus’ bill that passed Senate Finance has it reducing the deficit by $80 billion over the next decade. More CBO estimates are coming.

With Moveon moving in; as activists descended on Bayh’s Indianapolis and South Bend offices with petitions; and with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee producing a Research 2000 poll showing that 52 percent of Hoosiers backed the health reforms and 51 percent of the Democrats would abandon Bayh for a non-existent primary challenger in 2010, the senator appears to be backtracking.

By October 29, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reported, “Sen. Bayh told us it is extraordinarily unlikely that he would filibuster health reform. He said there is nothing in the bill he is aware of now that would cause him to vote to filibuster and he said that he currently ‘can’t think of a set of circumstances under which he would vote against cloture.’”

But it wasn’t over. He told WLFI-TV in Lafayette that his comments were misconstrued.  “They asked if there were any conceivable circumstances where I might possibly imagine not being able to support the legislation? I said I suppose theoretically, and immediately I was opposed to it going forward, but I made it clear it had to be completely unconscionable and I was unaware of anything that meets that test in the bill.”


Evan Bayh maneuvered himself to become a moderate arbiter in the Senate. Now he has become the most conspicuous.

Layered on top of all the health reform drama is Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s new book, “Audacity to Lead.”  Bayh, he explains, essentially lost the vice presidential nomination in August 2008 by a “coin toss.”

“Bayh’s answers to our questions were substantively close to perfect, if cautiously so,” Plouffe writes. “Seeing Bayh right after (Sen. Joe) Biden provided some interesting contrasts and comparisons. Listening to Bayh talk, I thought, ‘There’s no way this guy will color outside the lines.’”

Obama announced on August 17, “It’s Biden.” And while the campaign had to endure Biden’s errant off-script cracks, the choice seemed to reconfirm what many Hoosiers already knew: Bayh is the cautious seeker and not the bold reformer that Barack Obama sought as a partner.

But here’s the delicious twist: Evan Bayh may hold the fate of President Obama’s most prized reforms in his hands. And it comes as even more controversy swirls. The fact that Sen. Bayh’s wife, Susan, made $2 million over the past two years serving on the corporate boards of several health and insurance companies complicates the picture. The fact that she joined all these boards after Bayh joined the Senate in 1999 has some suggesting the family has profited handsomely from the status quo.

Or as CNN’s Rick Sanchez put it last Monday, “A senator whose vote could, in large measure, decide the fate of the health insurance companies, has a wife who’s getting more than $2 million from the health insurance companies. Did you hear what I just said? Yes, I’m talking about you, Democratic Senator Evan Bayh.”

Bayh’s wild week had gotten even crazier. But Plouffe offered cover in his book. “It was clear her positions would draw fire if we selected him,” Plouffe says of Susan Bayh.  “He passionately defended his wife’s board service, both terms of her professional qualifications and talent as well as the lengths they both traveled to remove any conflict of interest.  We were satisfied he could bat down any question on that front.”

So the emerging narrative on this key sequence in the Bayh political career is one of a deficit hawk, an arbiter, a cautious senator, a man in pursuit of power subsequently denied. And now, Evan Bayh stands at the fulcrum that could define that very presidency.

(Howey publishes at

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