Evan Bayh has now been a serious vice presidential contender for three consecutive elections. In 2000, he was one of Al Gore’s four finalists (Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and John Edwards were the others), in 2004 he was given a serious look by Kerry’s campaign, and this year he is – by most press accounts – on Barack Obama’s very short list.
Maybe three times will prove the charm, and maybe not. Certainly, this story – which raises all sorts of conflict of interest questions about the seven corporate boards on which Bayh’s wife serves – won’t help his chances.
If Obama doesn’t pick him, Bayh will probably just go through this whole process again in four years or eight years or whenever a Democratic presidential nominee next needs a running mate. Whether in 2012 or 2016, Bayh will probably still be in the Senate, still look relatively young, still be popular in Indiana, and still have a red-state-friendly style and ideology. It’s enough to almost guarantee him a spot on the short list (by then, he might be old enough to have some of that ever-elusive “gravitas,” too). And then he’ll probably be passed over again, because he’s too bland, too conventional and just not the right match for the presidential nominee.
In that sense, it may be that the 52-year-old Bayh, if he is passed over this time, is simply taking the torch from Sam Nunn and Bob Graham, two similarly logical VP prospects whose names have been floated every four years since the mid-1980s – up to and including this year (although Nunn’s has gotten much more play, and some even believe he’s a finalist, along with Bayh). But Nunn will turn 70 next month and Graham is 71: 2008 is the end of the line for their careers as running-mate short-listers.
Bayh seems ideally suited to replace them. The promise of Nunn and Graham has always been that they’d make independents and conservative-leaning voters comfortable, put traditionally Republican states in play and lend the ticket an overall air of competence and foreign policy authority. The exact same case is made for Bayh.
Also, like Nunn and Graham, Bayh – despite his evident ambition – seems disinclined to pursue and secure the presidential nomination on his own. Nunn had golden openings in 1988 (when Southern Democrats created Super Tuesday specifically for a Nunn-like candidate) and in 1992 (when every big-name Democrat passed on the race). He declined both times. Graham could have run in both of those years too, or even in 1984. He too stayed out, although he did finally wage a brief and spectacularly futile bid for the 2004 nomination, one that felt at least 12 years too late from the start. Bayh, too, has passed on opportunities. He barely gave 2004 a look, and after taking steps to run in ’08, promptly retreated when he realized how formidable Obama and Hillary Clinton would be.
We may not have Sam Nunn and Bob Graham to throw into the VP mix in 2012 or 2016. But if he’s not picked this year, go ahead and pencil Bayh’s name in on the short list.