Wednesday, August 6, 2008

VP profile: Evan Bayh

Age: 53
Current Position: Junior senator from Indiana
Former Positions of Importance:
  • Governor of Indiana, 1989-1997
  • Indiana Secretary of State, 1987-1989
Bayh seems to have become the odds-on favorite in this little game. I linked a Washington Post story last week that put him in Obama's "Final Four," along with Virginia governor Tim Kaine, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius and Senator Joe Biden. But the speculation continues to swirl around Bayh. Some pundits even suggested Obama would name Bayh this week during his sweep through Indiana. Unless Obama pulls out a surprise announcement tonight, that seems unlikely. All the talking heads argue that Obama will either name a VP in the next couple of days or will wait a few weeks until the Olympics are over. I have a hard time imagining that the Summer Olympics will actually swallow up Barack Obama's vice-presidential choice and keep him from getting adequate news coverage, but hey, maybe that's why I'm sitting here blogging instead of shouting things on MSNBC.

Pros: Bayh's greatest asset is his inoffensiveness. If you come from the "do no harm" school of vice presidential selections, Bayh might be the perfect candidate. He's been around for awhile without earning opprobrium from any corners. Bayh's a pleasant personality, wonderfully safe, guaranteed to do nothing that will hurt the ticket.

Despite Bayh's relative youth he has an impressive governing resume, one that contains both legislative and executive experience. He was a popular two-term governor, easily winning election in 1988 and pulling 62 percent of the vote when he ran for re-election in 1994. As governor, he gained bi-partisan plaudits for "fiscal discipline."

After his tenure as governor, Bayh moved to Washington D.C. to take office as Indiana's junior senator. At this point he's serving on five different committees, including the Intelligence Committees and and the Armed Services Committee. So...yeah. That's something.

The Obama campaign might be looking at Evan Bayh through eyes that see only the number "11." That's the state of Indiana's contribution to our quirky little electoral college, and in a close election, those are 11 votes that could prove crucial. Indiana hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964; it gave George Bush an easy victory in 2004.

Obama thinks that might change this year. The Indianapolis Star reported, and the good folks at the mighty fun have pointed out, that the Obama campaign has 14 field offices open in Indiana. McCain has none and has no plans to open any. The polls chronicled over at FiveThirtyEight indicate a small lead (four or five points) for McCain in Indiana. That's not insurmountable.

Bayh has deep roots in the state. The desk he occupies in the US Senate once belonged to his father, Birch Bayh. (No, really, that was his name) His re-election margin in 1994 was the widest in modern Indiana history, and he left the state house with an absurdly high approval rating. I'm generally skeptical of the influence a vice presidential pick can have on voters, but if that theory works for anyone, it works for Bayh.

Cons: "Bayh's greatest asset is his inoffensiveness?" Inspiring, isn't it? If Obama picks Bayh, he'll get a night of news coverage and nothing else. The VP newscycle ends with the following day's newspapers. Bayh is a sinfully boring pick, the kind of choice that does nothing to inspire or energize the base to come out on Election Day.

Bayh's most notable "achievement" in the Senate was co-sponsoring the Congress' joint resolution approving military action in Iraq. Bayh was, in fact, a strong supporter of the war and stood by the invasion while criticizing the Bush administration's conduct of it. That, along with Bayh's chairmanship of the religiously centrist Democratic Leadership Council, can only serve to annoy the liberals who largely carried Obama through the primary campaign.

Aside from the Iraq debacle, Bayh has no extraordinary achievements in the Senate. His tenure as Indiana's governor was impressive, but there's nothing about him that screams "heavyweight." He's not a package of "Instant Credibility: just add water!"

Bayh might come off as a blatant attempt to use the vice presidency as an election tool. Most presidential nominees do that, but this would be particularly hard to spin as anything other than a vote grab. It would feed into the Obama-as-lightweight narrative conjured by McCain.

Verdict: It appears Indiana's electoral votes and the desire to make a safe, uncontroversial pick are likely to win out. I understand it, but I don't particularly like it. Bayh might well force the McCain campaign to spend time and resources in Indiana. That's a big deal. But I remain unconvinced that he'll be able to actually deliver the state, and if that's the case, a close contest there could actually be dangerous for the campaign, enticing them with promises of a victory that's always just out of reach.

I prefer Joe Biden, who brings heft and intelligence. I much prefer Bill Richardson, but he doesn't appear to be a serious option.

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