Bayh pere et fils: the opportunity for Evan

As my colleague T-N Coates has pointed out, Evan Bayh's very-last-minute decision not to run for the Senate is graceless by most normal measures. He didn't talk with the President or the leader of his party in the Senate, both of whom obviously had a stake in his decision. He caught his state's party organization so much by surprise that they may not be able to get a substitute on the ballot under the normal rules.

The puzzlement to me is how this fits with the previous 25 years of his political life -- rather, what retrospective light it sheds on that time. Bayh has held elective office since he was 30. He became Indiana's governor at 33 and U.S. senator at 43.

If he really cared about his Indiana constituents and their problems through that time, great! But if so, how can he walk away with this kind of careless disregard about whether, in the style of his departure, he is smashing up things that had said were important to him. If, on the other hand, these issues and people never really mattered that much, and public life had been a kind of popularity contest -- well, that may be true of a lot of politicians, but they don't like to reveal it quite this bluntly.

Here's a constructive suggestion: Do you really care about the partisanship that is ruining public life and that, as you said, has driven you from the Senate, Mr. Bayh? Then why not use the fact that you are still in the U.S. Senate for most of another year -- a platform 99.999% of Americans will never occupy -- and apply all the power you can to advance causes you care about. What is holding you back?

Unlike everyone else up for election this year, you don't have to worry how this or that bout of truth-telling will look on Election Day. Let 'em bitch! You don't need an interest group to endorse you or a civic club to applaud you any more. Do you think hyperpartisanship is destroying the Senate? Why not call out people -- by name, by specific hypocritical move -- when you see them doing what they should be ashamed of? I guarantee that the press would eat this up. Why not a ten-month public seminar, through the rest of this year, on who is doing what, and how it could be different? Do you object to personal "holds" on nominations? Make it an issue! You have an idea of some issue where Republicans and Democrats might agree? Be specific about it and see what you can do. Again, if I know anything about the press and the melodrama of public life, I know you could turn it to your advantage -- and the public's, Mr. Smith style.

Suggested role model:

Your father, Birch Bayh, became a senator even younger. He was 34 when he took office, and 52 when defeated by Dan Quayle. In between -- through three Senate terms, 18 years -- he acted as if he was using his office for something, rather than just occupying it. That is part of the reason he eventually became vulnerable, as someone too "liberal" for his base. His punishment was to leave the Senate involuntarily, something you're now doing by choice. What he tried to do, at some risk to himself, you can now do risk free. His reward is his reputation. Yours could be the same.

(I can always dream.)