Evan Bayh's Very Long 2009

It's safe to say, now that he's confirmed his impending retirement, that 2009 was a terrible year for Evan Bayh. Pummeled by both the left and the right, Bayh evidently decided he didn't need to endure any more abuse. That didn't stop him from taking his time -- he waited until just a few days before the filing deadline to let the news slip. Indiana Democrats, already facing a very tough electoral climate, now have little time to collect the necessary 500 signatures from each of the state's Congressional districts to qualify a new contender.

As Chris Cillizza pointed out two months ago, Bayh's future in the Democratic Party was over long before this announcement (perhaps not coincidentally, Cillizza was also the first to report Bayh's decision). But more than Bayh's dimming political prospects, my guess is that what got to Bayh was the distinctly personal tone attacks on him had taken -- particularly those on his wife, Susan, who serves on the board of WellPoint, one of the nation's largest health insurers.

Bayh started tacking to the right almost immediately after Obama's election, long before it became apparent to most that the coalition which had turned Indiana blue for the first time in 40 years would evaporate. Just weeks after Obama's stunning victory in the state, Bayh was trying to put together a Senate Blue Dog coalition. He took to the conservative op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal in March to decry an omnibus spending bill. He spoke out against cap and trade.

On the most important issue of the year -- health care reform -- Bayh had a long hard time making up his mind. He told reporters there was no difference between voting for cloture on the bill and approving his bill on October 28; just a day later he abruptly reversed course and announced to Rachel Maddow that he'd definitely vote for cloture.

Weeks later Bayh was singing a different tune. Now he was again unsure about how he would vote on the bill, because it contained large fees on medical device manufacturers. Quite a few companies in this industry -- Cook Group, Siemens, Zimmer, Boston Scientific and Medtronic -- have operations in his state. He told hometown radio station WIBC that his vote for the bill depended on cuts in the medical device fees:

I went to the leadership and I said, look, I'm just not gonna support this if you threaten these jobs, they listened to me, and they took action to make sure the jobs are now safe, and the industry should be alright.

Perhaps unwittingly Bayh's boasts about the medical device fee cuts played into one of the biggest criticisms he has faced this year: his undeniable closeness with corporate special interests. Indeed, in a press release announcing the fee cuts Bayh managed to quote the CEOs of two companies that have made contributions to his campaign account through their corporate PACs. 85% of Bayh's campaign cash comes from out-of-state contributors, according to an October Northwest Indiana Times analysis. (That compares to 27% for Indiana's Republican Sen. Dick Lugar).

More than the shots from Glenn Greenwald (who called Bayh the "perfectly representative face for the rotted Washington establishment") and Matt Yglesias (Bayh was "acting to entrench the culture of narcissism and hypocrisy that's killing the United States Congress"), what really must have gotten to Bayh was the intensely personal tenor of the attacks on Bayh's wife, Susan.

For many years Susan's membership on several major corporate boards (eight of them, in 2008) was something of an open secret. Only over the course of the health care reform debate was it widely spoken about in Indiana. With Bayh playing a prominent role in the haggling over the public option and medical device fees, it was impossible to ignore the fact that WellPoint, a behemoth insurer, was paying Susan Bayh hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Between 2006 and 2008 Susan earned $2.1 million from health insurers. Legal under Senate rules, Susan Bayh's refusal to step down from WellPoint's board, and her husband's denial that the millions she had earned from WellPoint would influence him, were greeted with derision from ethics watchdogs.

It's hard to say how Evan Bayh would have made out in November; one January poll had him under 50% but a February poll had him handily defeating both of the two most prominent Republican contenders, John Hostettler and Dan Coats.

Coats once held Bayh's seat in the Senate but decided not to run against him in 1998. After more than a decade spent as an ambassador to Germany and a lobbyist for hire, Coats has decided he wants back in the Senate. The lobbying will make Coats vulnerable, and the campaign had promised to involve plenty of mudslinging. It had seemed certain that Coats would point to Susan's service on corporate boards to neutralize Bayh's advantage on the lobbying issue. An NRSC spokesman called their marriage the "Bayh family partnership," making it sound like the Gambino family. The fact that the House is looking into a 39% rate hike by one of WellPoint's California subsidiaries couldn't have been any comfort.

Susan Bayh's service on the WellPoint board was criticized by more than just wingnuts or diehard health care reform fanatics -- groups like Common Cause have raised serious questions about it. But for Bayh -- for both of the Bayhs -- it still must have felt like the politics of personal destruction. There were certainly other factors at play, and no doubt the reason Bayh cited in his announcement to the Indianapolis Star, increasing polarization in the Senate, weighed on him. But the promised attacks on Susan must have weighed on him just as much if not more, and he decided he wasn't going to take it anymore.

Update (2.16): I noted this in a comment but I wanted to highlight it here as well, since my wording above was clumsy. The criticisms of Susan and Evan Bayh over WellPoint haven't been "personal" in the sense that they attack her looks or weight or anything like that, at least as far as I'm aware. But they do necessarily touch on a personal relationship -- their marriage -- and issues of character. The conflict of interest questions that have been raised are political fair game.