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Kissing Off Congress, Evan Bayh Breaks Hearts: Margaret Carlson

Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) -- “Married White Senator seeks long-term relationship with person or institution with a bipartisan spirit. Must have a soft spot for medical-device companies, coal mines and promise never to filibuster during an argument. Affection for Hoosier basketball a plus. High salary, too.”

It’s lonely in the Senate for a moderate. In announcing that he was giving up his relatively safe seat, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh played his own headhunter. With the Senate dysfunctional, he wants to pursue “helping grow a business, helping guide an institution of higher learning or helping run a worthy charitable endeavor.” He did not give an 800 number.

Elsewhere in his statement, which mercifully didn’t mention spending more time with his family, Bayh blamed his bailing on a polarized Senate where governing rarely occurs.

It now takes 60 votes to approve a deputy assistant secretary for agricultural marketing orders. No one on the red side likes anyone on the blue side, and vice versa. Leading Republicans were for a bipartisan commission to deal with the deficit, some sponsoring a bill to that effect, before President Barack Obama proposed it. Then they were against it. The president’s call for a bipartisan summit on health care elicited the repeated accusation that he was setting a trap.

We all get that it’s no bed of roses up there on Capitol Hill. But what happened to sticking with a job when the going gets tough? You know -- the way millions of people do every day.

The Pampered Flee

Who gave the pampered class permission to bolt when their coveted jobs are no longer fulfilling? Bayh could have taken one for the team, with a seat as safe any Democrat holds in this environment. With his departure, it’s now as endangered as any. White House to Bayh: thanks a lot.

That’s not to say he’s venal in his departure, like former Senator Trent Lott. The timing of his retirement in December 2007 -- with five years left on his latest six-year term -- was suspiciously on the eve of new lobbying limits that would have crimped his future earnings. But neither is Bayh like the self-sacrificing Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd, who stepped aside from what looked like a losing battle in Connecticut to let a Democrat with a better shot run.

Bayh’s reasoning resembles that of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who justified decamping for greener pastures with the rationale that she could make a better contribution to society out of office. So far that contribution has been to herself and to Fox News. She fosters, and feeds off, the Tea Party movement but wouldn’t rally the troops for free, charging them a $100,000 speaking fee as if they were some rich trade association.

Gentler Politics

Bayh is just the kind of public servant to save Congress from its ills. There’s mutual respect and friendship between him and his Indiana colleague, Republican Richard Lugar.

Bayh was 6 when his father, Birch, was elected to the Senate, and so is steeped in a kinder, gentler tradition. Like young Al Gore, Bayh ran through the halls of the Capitol, was dandled on the knee of old lions, and schooled at St. Albans.

Bayh has had many wins in his political life -- Indiana secretary of state, governor for two terms, then two terms in the Senate. He’s also had his share of close calls and losses, which may account for his cautious nature.

He endured his mother being stricken with cancer when he was 16. An Oklahoma beauty queen who beat her husband-to-be in an American Farm Bureau speaking contest, the Marvelous Marvella died in 1979 at 46.

Dad’s Defeat

Bayh was scarred by a lesser but still searing loss two years later, when his father was defeated in his bid for a third Senate term, not just by anyone but by Dan Quayle, considered no more a bright light back then than when he couldn’t spell potato as vice president.

Although Bayh has grown in his job and lost the callow look he shared, oddly enough, with Quayle, he is more conciliator than fighter. It was unlikely and yet still an eerie possibility that history could have repeated itself in this year’s election, with Bayh challenged by another politician named Dan.

Former Senator Dan Coats, who worked for Quayle and was appointed to fill his seat when Quayle became George H.W. Bush’s vice president, says he has enough signatures to get on the Republican primary ballot. Still, he had an uphill climb ahead. He was running 20 points behind after a video surfaced in which he extolled the virtue of his adopted North Carolina, where he was registered to vote, over Indiana.

Foresaw Trouble

To his credit, Bayh was worried that failure to pass health-care reform could spell doom for Democrats this fall. According to Jonathan Alter’s upcoming book, “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,” Bayh assured White House senior adviser David Axelrod that as a matter of survival, Democrats would pass health-care legislation. Otherwise, Bayh said, “We’re all screwed.”

“I do not love Congress,” Bayh said as he prepared to leave it. As one of the few senators who can reach across the aisle and touch someone, he should keep his hand in the outstretched position for the next 11 months. He has nothing left to lose.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at

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