SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Call it a coincidence, if you will, but longtime observers of Indiana politics found symbolic meaning in Evan Bayh's announcement not to seek another Senate term taking place on Presidents Day.
On the one day set aside each year to celebrate previous occupants of the White House, a political figure with more than a hankering for hearing "Hail to the Chief" played for him declared his separate peace from the electoral wars.
Bayh's decision hit with hurricane force in his snow-covered state because most Hoosiers can't imagine him on the political sidelines. He cut his teeth as the son of a popular U.S. senator, Birch Bayh, then won his first term as governor in 1988 at the age of 33. Another term as governor and 12 years in the Senate secured his place as (in the descriptive phrase of one Democratic insider) "the 800-pound gorilla in Indiana politics."
When Bayh concluded his eight years as governor he left behind a budget surplus of $1.6 billion and had an approval rating of 79 percent, according to an Indianapolis Star survey. In 1998, he won his first Senate race with 64 percent of the vote, followed six years later with 62 percent. Those numbers are even more impressive given the Republican orientation of so much of the Hoosier state.
Bayh's departure from the top of the 2010 ticket leaves his party floundering just 15 months after Barack Obama captured Indiana. Obama's victory for Democrats was the first on the presidential level since Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964.
Though some analysts viewed Bayh's decision as self-centered and selfish, his statement about the excessive partisanship of Congress put front and center the moderate's dilemma in Washington today. Partisan polarization makes the compromise Bayh champions as elusive as the higher offices he has kept seeking the past decade.
Before the 2008 campaign, Bayh took a sustained look at a presidential bid before deciding not to run, and in 2000, 2004 and 2008 he was short-listed as a potential vice-presidential running mate for Al Gore, John Kerry and Obama.
For someone who's never lost an election and who's only 54 now, speculation already abounds about his next political step. Republican Mitch Daniels is nearing the end of his two terms as governor, and it's possible Bayh will seek his old office in 2012. Winning it again would return him to an executive position, a more promising stepping stone (in the eyes of many) for a White House race in 2016.
Although there's already talk that he could mount a centrist-oriented independent campaign for the presidency in 2012, Bayh denied this possibility on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Tuesday. "I don't intend to start a third-party movement," he said during the interview.
But what's clear from Bayh's decision is that he sees continued Senate service as a political dead-end, akin to a civic hamster wheel. He departs with a war chest of $13 million -- and what he does with all that money will be fascinating to watch.
Republicans already have five candidates, including former Sen. Dan Coats and former Congressman John Hostettler, vying for the Senate nomination in Indiana's May primary, while Democrats scramble to find a credible opponent to head the statewide ballot this fall.
Bayh's Presidents' Day announcement might be interpreted as his declaration of independence from the Senate, but to call it his retirement swan song is a misnomer. He'll be back once he figures out another political route for his ambition.
Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.
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