Senator Evan Bayh: Someone Both Sides Can Respect

Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana has chosen to retire, citing his frustration with his colleagues in Congress basing their votes on “short-term political reasons.” He says that he is not retiring out of a fear of losing, but the competitive race that was likely to ensue after former Senator Dan Coats decided to run against him must have been a factor in his decision. Absent an economic upswing that is clearly felt to all, the anti-incumbent furor was going to continue to rise and Bayh could very well have lost come November. Whether you are a Democrat mourning the loss of the favorable political environment since 2006 or a Republican rejoicing in a possible pick-up of a Senate seat, both sides should feel respect for the man and miss some of his contributions to the country.

Bayh, despite winning elections by large margins and being very popular in his state, was already three points behind Congressman Mike Pence in a theoretical match-up. Pence declined to run for Senate, almost certainly because he is plotting a 2012 presidential bid, as evidenced by his trip to Iowa and his planned visit to New Hampshire next month. Bayh may have let go a sigh of relief, but this poll showed there was a strong appetite in Indiana for a challenger.

Whether you agree with Bayh or not on the issues, he is a model, practical politician. His rhetoric has never been hateful and he’s been willing to get bruises in order to maintain his integrity, bring about compromise, and do what he feels is best for the country under pressure from his own base. He is a moderate, having been the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and part of the Senate Centrist Coalition and the Senate New Democrat Coalition alongside Senator Lieberman. Nowhere are these qualities more apparent in his record than on national security.

In an op-ed in October, Bayh correctly framed the debate over Iran as an argument over the nature of the regime. He wrote: “Will the country’s ruling clerics choose to behave as leaders of a rational nation-state and embrace policies based on a cost-benefit analysis of what is in their national interest? Or will they embrace global confrontation, driven by religious extremism and hatred of Israel, the United States, and Western civilization?”

Bayh places himself in the latter category in his piece. He previously said, “To deny history like this -- this virulent anti-Semitism, their sponsoring of terrorism, their search for a nuclear weapon -- ought to be a wake-up call to every American. Appeasement won’t work.”

He is not ignorant of the ideological motivations of terrorists and the regimes that sponsor them. He does not attribute their actions to a misinterpretation of clumsy American diplomacy and foreign policy. He gets it. And he acts on this belief.

Senator Bayh introduced the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which finally has passed Congress. This gives President Obama the authority to place sanctions on companies providing Iran with petroleum-based products, striking at Iran’s reliance upon imports of foreign gasoline. Bayh goes even further, advocating penalizing any business that has dealings with the regime and any investors in Iran’s energy sector. He placed himself opposite of then-Senator Obama in voting in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment in 2007 to designate the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Placing aggressive sanctions on Iran is now a popular bipartisan idea, but Bayh was a strong proponent of this from the beginning, introducing a resolution calling for tough sanctions in January 2006 that are harsher than what is being considered even today.

On Iraq, he was a strong supporter of regime change, sitting on the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and voting in favor of giving President Bush the authority to use military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein if he did not cooperate with the inspectors. He today says the war was a mistake, but largely bases this on its prosecution and faulty intelligence. He is not indifferent to the need to replace Saddam; he just disagrees with the war on the strategic level and this is a respectable anti-war position.

He can be criticized for opposing the surge, but it must be remembered that he was with 68 percent of the American people at the time. He was in favor of a phased withdrawal on a flexible timeline for a long time, saying in 2006 when Iraq was in its worst state that “it’s not possible to just pick an arbitrary date.” He said that “we’ve got to be somewhere between cut and run … and we’re sort of mindlessly staying the course. You’ve got to have a sensible middle ground.”

When every Democrat was gaining political points by hammering the war, Bayh condemned the “ideological extremism” on each side. “We’ve got to stop just obsessing on decisions that were made several years ago and instead focus on where we are, and most important, where we’re going,” he said.

In March 2007, he gave in and voted in favor of forcing the president to withdraw all combat forces within a year, and that, too, he should be held accountable for. However, this was not fringe, far-left thought -- at this point supporting a withdrawal became mainstream thought with significant traction on both sides.

He has had no illusions about the Palestinian leadership, saying in 2002 that “Yasser Arafat is no partner for peace. Not until there is new and better leadership within the Palestinians will there be a chance for peace.”

On Afghanistan, Bayh is defending Obama from the heat from their base for the surge. In regards to the timeline, Bayh says having a goal in mind is good but that they will “take into account changes in facts on the ground that may occur.”

When the world and much of the Democratic Party reacted negatively to Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, Bayh came to his defense. “I give him credit for telling it the way it is,” he said. And even when he was preparing to run for the 2008 presidential nomination of his party, Bayh supported the speech, saying, “That’s tough talk and I commend him for it.” And more recently, Jeffrey Goldberg reported that when he discussed the topic of Iran with Bayh, the senator said, “You just hope that we haven’t soured an entire generation on the necessity from time to time, of using force because Iraq has been such a debacle.” When it comes to protecting the U.S., Bayh is serious and doesn’t think politically.

Bayh is an admirable politician and the country would be better off if we had more like him. He can’t be considered a Lieberman-esque turncoat by progressives, despite the uproar in the left-wing blogosphere when he made the final cut to become Obama’s running mate. He harbors liberal values and I understand why conservatives are happy to see him go, potentially replaced by someone who is more of their ilk. But on his way out, Bayh deserves to be honored by both sides for his principle and showing the country that moderate, open-minded officials with a kind tone can still be elected in America.