Evan Bayh is returning to politics. The former Democratic governor of Indiana and U.S. senator has decided to enter the race for his old Senate seat, which is currently occupied by a retiring Republican. This is exciting news for people who want Democrats to retake the Senate, and bad news for people who want Democrats to retake the Senate not just for the sake of retaking the Senate, but so that those Democrats can actually accomplish things.
Bayh, whose father was also a senator, served in the Senate from 1999 until his unexpected retirement, in 2010. Both a deficit hawk and a hawk-hawk, he voted for Iraq, constantly went around trying to start deficit commissions to backdoor social insurance cuts, and generally failed to accomplish anything notable in his two terms, aside from briefly being floated as a potential 2008 Obama running mate because he was a centrist white guy from the middle-ish of the country.
After his abrupt retirement, some speculated that Bayh was going to run for president—after all, he had a $13 million campaign warchest available to use in a future campaign. (Others thought he might have retired to become the manager of a mechanical pencil factory.) Bayh dismissed the presidential speculation, and said, in a New York Times column, that he was leaving the Senate because it was a broken institution, paralyzed by partisan gridlock, where senators too busy raising money from wealthy interests to accomplish anything.
Liberal commentators really didn’t think much of Bayh, but his column impressed some of them—including Ezra Klein, who urged Bayh to stay in the Senate, and then interviewed him at length, discussing Bayh’s problems with the institution. Klein came away impressed. In his resignation column, and again in his interview with Ezra Klein, Bayh insisted that he could better serve the country outside the Senate than inside. In his exit remarks in the Senate, Bayh suggested he might become a university president or run a charitable organization.
He pretty much immediately joined a lobbying firm. And then he joined a private equity firm. (Klein, at least, was properly annoyed.) Bayh’s also on the board of director’s of Marathon Petroleum Corporation and some plastics company. And he did a gig with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—the most influential right-wing corporate lobbying organization in the country—where he went around the country talking about how regulations are killing business.
Most recently, Bayh has been in the news for joining hawkish Republicans in a campaign to sabotage the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, with a scare campaign built around trying to convince people that an Iranian nuclear attack on the United States was imminent.
That whole time, from his 2010 retirement announcement until now, Bayh just sat on the that massive campaign warchest. At any point, he could have donated some or all of the money—$10 million at this point—to any number of charitable causes. He decided not to, because apparently he knew that he’d eventually just mosey on back to the Senate, a much richer man.
It is generally accepted that Bayh-style politics are necessary if Democrats wish to win in conservative states. (Indiana, which experimented with voting for Obama in 2008, swung decisively back to the GOP in 2012, and Trump is expected to win easily.) The weird thing has always been that the actual policies of Bayh-style moderates aren’t really popular with anyone. There is no mass constituency for “entitlement reform” or war with Iran. Bayh-style politics work in reddish states mainly through rhetorical distancing from liberalism—not opposition to popular liberal ideas, but careful tribal signaling that you’re not one of those liberals.
Now Bayh’s opportunity has arrived. His successor, Dan Coats, who, by the way, also has participated in the lobbyist-Senate revolving door, decided not to seek reelection, so the seat is open. As you’ve no doubt heard, it is a presidential election year, so Democratic turnout will be higher than in a midterm—and he can rely on anti-Trump sentiment to boost it further. The Democrat who won the actual primary voluntarily stepped aside to make room for Bayh’s return. It will be a glorious homecoming for Evan Bayh, that undistinguished corporatist, who is wildly out-of-step with the mood of the country and the changing makeup of the Democratic Party, but who possesses those two vital attributes: a famous name and a fortune. If all goes well, this living embodiment of everything corrupt and dispiriting about American politics in the 21st century will soon once again take his rightful place, in a sclerotic legislative body designed by aristocrats to confound popular democracy.
If we have to elect a bunch of shitty Democrats in order to spend the next four years battling right-wing revolutionaries to barely maintain the lousy status quo, can’t we at least get some new shitty Democrats?