POLITICS
09/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bayh As Veep? Advantage: McCain

The buzz on Indiana Senator Evan Bayh's shot at the vice-presidency has escalated this week, and the reaction in progressive circles has ranged from concern to alarm. It's not for nothing: worries range from the practical matter of losing a Senate seat in a tough state, to dissonance on pro-choice issues -- a matter that surely won't sit well with disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters. But if there's a dealbreaker out there with Bayh, it's definitely the Iraq War.

Bayh, of course, benefits from hindsight, and he's not been slow to put it to use. Back in April of 2008, Bayh offered up a rigorous performance at the Petraeus/Crocker hearings, where he cautioned against "taking marching orders from Osama bin Laden," and deftly built the case for redirecting our attention to the Afghanistan/Pakistan theatre:

BAYH: The question of opportunity costs was raised and in the intelligence world, at least for the foreseeable future, they tell us that we are much more likely to be subject to a terrorist strike emanating from Afghanistan or possibly the tribal regions of Pakistan than we are Iraq. And yet we are currently spending five times as much in Iraq as we are in Afghanistan on a monthly basis. We have five times as many troops stationed in Iraq as we do in Afghanistan currently. How do we -- how do you square that, when the threat currently is greater in terms of a terrorist strike from one place and yet we're devoting five times of the amount of resources and troops to a different place. Some might look at it and argue that our resources are being misallocated.

Indeed: some might make that argument. And there's no question that Bayh's attention to that point in April of 2008 is nothing but good news. The problem is, back in October 2002, Bayh was a force for misallocation, a sticking point that comes early in Carl Hulse's August 12 profile on Bayh's veepstakes chances:

"There is reluctance in my heart, as I know there is in the other senators, to contemplate the use of force," Mr. Bayh said, adding that he concluded "we were simply left with no other credible alternative to protect the safety and well-being of the American people."

It's that sort of thing that probably earned Bayh this praise from the DLC's Al From:

"The antiwar people cannot define the Democratic Party," said Al From, a founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, of which Mr. Bayh was chairman for four years. "I think Evan's real strength is you get someone on the ticket who has a record of being strong on national security, and that is a very important quality to have."

Naturally, I disagree with the poundingly inane From. Where, exactly, is the harm in allowing the people who got it right on Iraq to define the Democratic party? To From, Bayh's half-hearted support of bellicosity implies "strength." That's like saying that the sprained neck that Washington Redskins quarterback Gus Frerotte earned after head-butting a wall proved that he was "strong on cement."

All quips aside, the larger problem with Bayh on the ticket is that whatever "strength" he has on the Iraq War will flow in the direction of John McCain. After all, the grudging consent noted above came at McCain's prompting. And, as Hulse points out: "Mr. Bayh in early 2003 joined Mr. McCain as an honorary co-chairman of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which made regime change in Iraq its central cause."

All of which leaves Bayh not just structurally out-of-step with Obama's stated positions on Iraq, it also effectively inoculates McCain from the "good judgment" argument that the Obama camp keeps using to contrast McCain's perceived experience. That's not to take away from the significant support that Bayh can lend Obama as the race heads for its conclusion, or preclude further examples of the sensibility Bayh showed back in April. But it's clear that Bayh's support will be better received if it comes from his Senate seat than it would from the Democratic ticket.