On Feb. 15, Senator Evan Bayh, a centrist from Indiana and the scion of a prominent political family—his father is former Senator Birch Bayh—surprised colleagues on both sides of the aisle by announcing he would not seek a third term in November. Bayh, who has been frequently mentioned as a possible Presidential candidate, cited gridlock and Washington's toxic partisanship as reasons for his decision. I talked with Bayh two days later.
Why—and why now?
SENATOR EVAN BAYH
Well, it was a deeply personal and difficult decision. I'm an idealist but I'm also a pragmatist, and at this moment I can make a more significant contribution to our country and my state by being in the private sector, either with a university, a philanthropy, or helping to create jobs by expanding a business. Part of it is I'm an executive at heart. I was privileged to be governor of my state for about eight years...and so perhaps my expectations for the [Senate] are a little bit higher because of that. But the level of polarization and gridlock right now is just much higher than I've seen before, certainly higher than in my father's time.
Did you talk with your father, and what was his counsel?
He said to me: "Son, do what you think is right and everything else will work itself out." He does agree that the institution is not what it was back in his day. There were a lot more friendships across the aisle then. He tells a story about his first reelection in 1968. The Republican leader, Everett Dirksen, came up to him on the floor of the Senate and asked him what he could do to help. You would never see that kind of thing today. Members raise money for other members' opponents, they campaign against each other. That kind of culture really makes it much harder to sit down and forge consensus when you know the folks on the other side are trying to do you in.
How did we get to this point?
I think there are many contributing factors. The House has been deeply damaged by the gerrymander. Out of 435 seats, there are maybe only 15 competitive ones. So the real elections are in the primaries. If you're in a majority Democratic district, you go farther to the left to avoid a challenge, and the opposite occurs on the Republican side. And you end up having many more people on the far right and the far left and fewer ones in the middle where I think most Americans find themselves and where a real consensus gets accomplished. The pervasive need to fund-raise is also a factor. Back in my father's day, the old adage was you legislate for four years and you campaign for two. Now, because of the vast sums of money that have to be raised, there's a perpetual campaign. And if all things political are constantly at the forefront of your mind—the need to raise money, the desire to avoid a bad quote that might lead to a 30-second ad, that kind of thing—it just makes consensus more difficult to achieve. And I do think the two parties seem to be disproportionately influenced by their most fervent elements, who view a compromise as some form of betrayal. Other than ceremonial occasions, I can recall only twice when all 100 senators gathered together to focus on a problem of national import. The first was when the President had been impeached. The second was three days after 9/11.
Why not stay and fight?
First, I've devoted my entire adult life to doing exactly that...and unless my doctor has some surprise news, I'm not about to die or go away. I intend to continue to fight for the things I think are right for my country.
Some say that when you came to the Senate, people began to think of you as Presidential timber. And when that didn't happen, you found less reason to be in the Senate.
Well, the speculation was flattering, and there was a time when I thought about [running for President]. Fortunately, I went back on my meds and got those aspirations out of my mind.
Well, they're out of my mind, let me assure you. Only a handful of people have gotten to be President, so God help us if that's, you know, the only way you can contribute.
Did you have a serious conversation with the President—not the President's chief of staff—about this decision before you announced it?
I've talked to the President. I'm not going to divulge the content of our conversations. But I've had several conversations with him in the last year.
But not in the last week or so?
I didn't call the night before or that kind of thing. He's a busy man.
But the sense is that this decision was made in the last week, that while you might have been brooding about it, a decision point came.
The President was well aware of some of the frustrations I felt about Congress. Let me just say one of the reasons my decision was made when it was made is because some of the leaders of our country asked that I reconsider, and I felt it was appropriate that I give those requests the respect they deserve.
My friend New York Times columnist David Brooks believes there is an opportunity for a third-party candidate if the President runs for reelection and someone from the right of the Republican Party is the nominee.
There's a high level of frustration with the two-party system out there. Let me be clear: I support the President. I think he very much wants to be a change agent. He's making a sincere effort. But not enough members of Congress are listening, either because of partisan or ideological reasons. I believe the President will be a strong favorite for reelection, certainly as the economy improves. But I do think David is on to something. This is—for lack of a better phrase—"a Ross Perot moment." You remember back then, the deficit was unsustainably high. The economy was struggling. People had a sense that Washington was broken, and they looked for someone from outside the system. If the economy does not improve and these deficits and debt are just allowed to run up, and you get a reaction in the global credit markets that causes a collapse of the dollar or a dramatic spike in interest rates, that could be the kind of thing that would really galvanize public opinion against everyone in Washington—regardless of party.