Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bayh, Obama and the hearts and minds of Democratic voters

Bayh, Obama and the hearts and minds of Democratic voters

For Howey Political Report Oct. 26, 2006

Democratic hearts and minds are atwitter with the prospect that Barack Obama may enter the 2008 presidential contest. The 45-year-old, second-year senator from Illinois launched a wave of Obama mania last week when he acknowledged he is considering a run for the White House.

Evan Bayh take note: Your party hungers for a leader.

Conventional wisdom indicates Americans expect leadership experience to figure prominently in a presidential resume. We demand a substantial record of risk-taking and decision-making - the kind you get as a company founder, CEO, mayor or, most especially, a governor. After all, four of the past five presidents have served as governors, which is why Evan Bayh stresses his two terms as Indiana' top executive almost every time he takes to the stump.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, boasts a resume thin on substance: Eight years in the Illinois state senate and two years in his current job. No wonder, as Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post noted, he is sometimes described as "wet behind the ears" and "not ready to assume the role of spokesman for his party."

Enthusiasm for Obama is rooted in significant strengths, however. In an article published mid-summer, Cillizza cited Obama's potential as a top-tier fundraiser and stated he would be the only viable Democratic contender who can claim to have opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning (Obama was in the Illinois legislature when the invasion was authorized in 2002).

But at the top of any list of Obama's strengths is the one attribute Bayh has yet to demonstrate, and that is the ability to excite the masses.

"There's little question that Obama is the hottest political Democratic commodity in the country right now, drawing support from across the geographic and ideological spectrum," Cillizza wrote.

Many observers have noted that the bright lights of an Obama campaign would dim the prospects of Bayh and others, including John Edwards and John Kerry. "Should Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton both enter the race, it would likely turn the nominating contest into a two-person affair," according to Cillizza.

My guess is Obama will resist the temptation to actively seek a spot on the 2008 ticket, although he may be signalling his interest in the number two spot. Regardless of the final decision, I do believe Obama fever offers Bayh a valuable lesson.

By most criteria the Hoosier senator's 2008 proto-campaign is among the most advanced to date, be it Republican or Democrat. The Bayh organization is one of the best in the business. He's lined up major donors. He has established a solid reputation in the senate and with the media. He even boasts a growing number of followers.

But he has yet to exhibit the quality of leadership that excites, motivates and otherwise inspires others on the scale that will be necessary to unite and guide a fragmented Democratic Party.

"With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed," Abraham Lincoln said during his Aug. 21, 1858, debate with Stephan A. Douglas. "Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."

Bayh may want to keep that Lincoln quote handy as he continues to fashion and adapt a strategy aimed at winning the hearts and minds of today's voters.


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