The Democrats aren’t Duck Dynasty

John Krull

After months of speculation, Evan Bayh removed all doubt.

The former Indiana governor and two-term U.S. senator released a statement just before the weekend saying that he wouldn’t be coming back to lead the state Democratic Party out of the wilderness one more time.

“After serious consideration, I have decided that I will not be a candidate for governor in 2016. I hope that my decision will enable others to step forward and offer their ideas for making Indiana an even better place to live, work and raise a family,” the meat of Bayh’s statement read.

Bayh’s decision wasn’t a surprise – he’d all but told me last month in an interview he wouldn’t run – but it was disappointing, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that he likely would be a better governor now than he was the first time around.

I covered him when he first ran for governor – and won – more than a quarter-century ago. In those days, Democrats everywhere still looked for the next John F. Kennedy, a handsome young prince who could reclaim the castle from which they had been exiled.

That was particularly true in Indiana. Democrats hadn’t occupied the governor’s office for 20 years. They needed a fairy-tale prince to bring them hope.

Evan Bayh fit the bill. Only 32, handsome as a male model and blessed with a gift for inoffensive expression – campaign after campaign, political professionals who did opposition research on him looking for damaging gaffes inevitably finished their work weeping in frustration – he reclaimed and then held the castle for the state’s Democrats. Just about every victory they would know for the next 20 years can be traced back to his leadership.

I remember traveling with Bayh on a campaign swing in Southern Indiana in 1988. We traveled by small plane. When we landed, people surged forward, eager to touch him, pawing at his shirt sleeves and stretching out to pat his back. One older woman even tried to ruffle his hair, a gesture from which the naturally reserved Bayh recoiled.

So much energy. Such high expectations.

But his governorship wasn’t a fairy tale. Conservatives and Republicans often were enraged that they had lost power – and that Bayh seemed to have a singular knack for co-opting issues they thought should be theirs. And progressives and Democrats often were frustrated that Bayh’s victories never seemed to deliver the changes in public policy they wanted and for which they had waited for so long.

There also always was a sense that the governor’s office was little more than a way station, a stop on a journey that was supposed to carry him to the White House. He came close, a couple of times, but seemed to lose interest in politics when it became clear that the top rungs of the ladder would remain forever beyond his reach.

When I talked with him last month, Bayh sounded different – more grounded, less interested in trying to be all things to all people, more aware of his singular leadership gifts. He knows now his particular skill involves understanding the interests of many people and constituencies and finding ways to reconcile them. He’s the guy who’s good at keeping everyone at the table when tempers grow short.

When I talked with him a few weeks ago, Bayh said he wasn’t sure people today would accept “my style of leadership.” He said the partisanship was too extreme for a centrist to succeed.

Maybe, but now we won’t know – and that’s the second reason his decision not to run is disappointing.

We live now in a time in which strident voices from the extremes define too many of our public discussions. For a lot of these folks, left or right, it isn’t enough to win; for them to be satisfied, someone has to lose, too. They just aren’t interested in trying to find ways for us to move forward together.

We could use a powerful voice calling out to unite rather than divide us. We don’t need princes to reclaim lost castles now. We need a seasoned leader to show us the center can hold – a guy who’s good at keeping us all at the table.

Evan Bayh has made it clear that he won’t be that guy.

His decision, I suppose, says something about him – but it says at least as much about us.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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