Why Bayh's Exit Matters
Obama’s win in Indiana was proof that he was transcending the traditional red-blue divide. Peter Beinart on how the retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh endangers a Democratic dream.
Obama’s win in Indiana was proof that he was transcending the traditional red-blue divide. Peter Beinart on how the retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh endangers a Democratic dream. Plus, Lee Siegel on Bayh's shameful retreat.
To understand why Senator Evan Bayh’s surprise retirement is such a big deal, it’s important to realize that Indiana has always held a special place in the Democratic Party’s heart. It was the state, more than any other, which created the legend of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential bid. In the late 1960s, the state had a reputation for racism, a reputation built from decades of Klan power, and from its heavy support in 1964 for the presidential bid of arch-segregationist George Wallace. It was widely considered hostile to the kind of social transformation that liberal presidential candidates desire. Indiana, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote to RFK, was “a middle-class, small-town, suburban state, fearful of challenge, seeking consolation and reassurance.” Not a good state for him at all.
But Kennedy spent the primary’s final days in a motorcade through the state’s gritty industrial north, flanked by Richard Hatcher, the young African-American mayor of Gary, and Tony Zale, a middleweight boxer and son of Eastern European immigrants beloved by the white ethnics who worked northern Indiana’s steel mills. In the end, Kennedy won, not only by sweeping the black vote but winning blue-collar whites as well. This “black-blue” coalition died alongside Kennedy in a Los Angeles hotel a month later, but for decades—as the nation’s politics moved to the right—liberals kept the dream alive.
If a conservative Democrat like Evan Bayh fears he can’t win reelection in the state, it’s hard to imagine how Obama himself can win it again, absent a major shift in economic conditions.
It is partly this history that made Indiana so important to Barack Obama. Republicans had taken the state in the 1968 presidential race, and held it ever since. But in the late Bush years, as economic distress in the state mounted, there were signs that perhaps a black-blue coalition was possible there again. In 2006, Indiana elected three new Democratic congressmen. Bayh, its Democratic senator, was a commanding figure in the state. In 2008, Obama went into the Indiana primary following painful losses in Ohio and Pennsylvania, losses that led many in the chattering class to wonder if he could ever win over the white beer-and-bowling crowd. But Obama came out of Indiana with a virtual draw, and more shockingly, he beat John McCain there in the fall—becoming the first Democrat to win the state in more than 40 years.
• Lee Siegel: Bayh’s Shameful Retreat Obama’s general-election win in Indiana, along with his victories in North Carolina and Virginia, were central to his claim that he was transcending the red-blue divide, creating a new, less-polarized political map, an enduring Democratic majority of the kind that had been lost when Robert Kennedy was gunned down.
It’s this dream that, for the foreseeable future, Evan Bayh’s retirement likely forecloses. Republicans will probably take the seat, giving them both of the Hoosier State’s seats in the Senate, along with its gubernatorial mansion. Obama’s climate-change agenda is unpopular in Indiana and his health-care reform effort is not faring much better. If a conservative Democrat like Bayh fears he can’t win reelection in the state, it’s hard to imagine how Obama himself can win it again, absent a major shift in economic conditions.
For a party bracing for big losses in Congress, any retirement of a popular sitting senator is a blow. But this one represents something more: the death, once again, of the Democratic Party’s Indiana dream. After his primary victory, RFK remarked that, “The people here were fair to me. They gave me a chance. They listened to me. I could see this face, way in back in the crowd, and he was listening, really listening to me.” For Barack Obama, they don’t seem to be listening anymore.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June.