But the most interesting conversation took place over breakfast, where I was seated with a gentleman who seemed to have some role as a Democratic operative in Florida. (His day job was corporate.) A woman got the conversation rolling by asking him who he thought was the Democratic Party's best candidate for 2008. His answer? Evan Bayh.
I couldn't contain myself. Evan Bayh? I asked, startled. The man responded that Bayh was two-term governor of a Republican State, repeatedly elected to the Senate, and (if I recall correctly) head of the Democratic Leadership Conference in the same vein as Clinton. In short, he said, Evan Bayh is electable.
I gave him my thoughts, carefully disclosing myself as Hoosier, gay, and a registered Republican. (Why I remain a registered Republican, of course, took us down an entirely different alley for a period of time, but we found our way back to the original topic. For those of you who wonder, it remains a belief that moderate Republicans are the principle pressure point with whom we must work to get progress in Indiana, and it's not for everybody.)
My observation was that Evan Bayh has proven maddening to just about everyone, liberal and conservative alike. His positions have generally appeared inseparable from what might predicted by viewing his constituencies in light of his ambitions. Conservative when he needs to be, and liberal when he needs to be, with no discernable lodestone of his own.
While progress has eventually appeared on gay issues, it has been tortuous, and indeed some argue that Bayh was responsible for conservative regression in Indiana as Governor. (Bayh is said to have rescinded all executive orders of Governor Orr, including his nondiscrimination policy, which had quietly been amended to include sexual orientation. It was not reinstated until Goveror O'Bannon some 12 years later.) Insiders were well aware that Senator Lugar was prepared to vote against the marriage amendment if it hit the senate floor, while Bayh's vote was worrisomely uncommitted. (By voting to support filibuster on the bill, Bayh was able to avoid a vote on the ultimate constitutional amendment, which didn't have the numbers for passage in the Senate anyway.)
The operative's response to my concerns about progress that would be possible for glbt under Bayh was "maybe on YOUR issues." When I said that it seemed to me that Bayh was fairly conservative across the board, except when he needed for national Democratic ambition to be liberal, the operative again said "on YOUR issues." When I said it seemed to me that Joe Biden would be a great Democratic candidate, the operative said neither Biden nor Hilary Clinton would be electable. He said the most important thing would be for a Democrat to be elected. That the cause of progress gets thrown over the side in the process would be secondary. Gay rights in his mind was completely sacrificial.
Well, here's my message to national Democrats, as it was to that operative. Ronald Reagan redefined conservativism through sheer force of personal belief, which he projected confidently, without doubts, and in the face of opposition. He was right about the Soviet Union, about international free trade, and about the problems of government at that time.
But the economic power, endurance, and vitality of western Democracies were built as much on Liberalism, more essential an intellectual tradition to America's progress than conservativism ever could be. My vote of greatest conviction in a presidential contest was cast against Dukakis, not because he was a liberal, but because we could not have as leader of the western world in a global competition a man who would not even defend his own incredibly worthy intellectual tradition.
Indiana as a state has paid the price for Democratic imitation of the Republican Party. We stalled economically and we did not advance culturally. We saw the politics of electability, not of confidence in the greater good. Everyone is growing tired of the intolerance and lack of compassion for a diverse society shown by conservative Republicans. We don't need more of it.
In my opinion, the Democratic Party serves America best when it stands confidently on a candidate of principle, rather than rolling over for electability. It may have meant an election loss or two in the past, or again in the future. But ultimately, our success as a society depends on Liberalism regaining its historic foothold, and it is time for Democrats to offer a genuine leader who embraces its traditions. Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt are the Republicans for Democrats to emulate. Please don't give us another George Bush Jr., without principles of his own, whose only discernable ambition was to be President.