If not for a decision by one of the Republican Party's rising young stars, an old GOP warhorse might still be out to pasture.
But now, thanks to an improbable series of events and a deepening fear that “this thing called America is unraveling,” Dan Coats is back in the political saddle.
The question is: Will Coats' party, energized by the anti-incumbent militant populism of the tea-party movement, embrace a 66-year-old candidate sure to be painted by opponents of both parties as a career politician, Washington insider and carpetbagging lobbyist?
Coats makes a persuasive case that they will, but insists the coming race for the U.S. Senate seat he filled for 10 years isn't about him at all. It's about principles, he says: the principles the Republican Party betrayed and must restore if the nation is to survive.
“Republicans bear their share of responsibility (for the $12 trillion national debt). We lost our way between 2006 and 2008 and started acting like Democrats,” Coats said by telephone just hours after officially filing for the seat now held by Democrat Evan Bayh. “But now we need to say more than just ‘no' to what the Democrats are doing. We need to say how we would fix things.”
Coats never thought he'd be Indiana's repairman, however.
A strong supporter of U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, the 6th District Republican who represents part of Allen County, Coats said he never expected to be a candidate until Pence announced on Jan. 26 his intention to stay in the House. A week later, Coats said he was considering a run for Senate. And less than two weeks after that, Bayh shocked Coats and the entire nation by announcing he would not seek a third term.
Coats accepts Bayh's explanation of having tired of Washington's increasingly toxic and partisan atmosphere. Even so, he said, the timing of Bayh's announcement undermines the credibility of a poll conducted by the liberal Web site Daily Kos showing Coats trailing Bayh by 20 percentage points.
Ironically, Bayh's sudden departure may not be good news for Coats. While the loss of a traditionally popular Democratic senator is sure to help the Republican candidate's chances in November, Coats' main edge against his Republican primary opponents – the name recognition needed to unseat a well-known incumbent – no longer applies. And having represented northeast Indiana in the House of Representatives from 1981 to 1989, and serving in the Senate from 1989 to 1999, Coats will be the closest thing to an incumbent on the ballot.
So can he appeal to the growing tide of voters who simply want to throw all the bums out, whatever their party?
“I do think I appeal to the tea-party movement. I've been promoting fiscal discipline for a long time,” he said. “This crisis is so deep, so devastating, that it must be above politics. The first thing we need to do is to stop the (budgetary) bleeding, and put it before the voters:
“Are you willing to defer gratification for the sake of your children and grandchildren? I think recent elections show we're getting there. At the grassroots level, people are saying ‘enough!' What's happening is extraordinary.”
To that end, Coats supports creation of an independent commission that could recommend a series of budget cuts Congress would have to endorse or reject without amendment. Only then, he said, could the pressure to protect hometown interests be resisted – something Coats said he did by supporting recommendations to close military bases in Indiana.
Is he a carpetbagger? Well, Coats has lived and voted in Virginia, and also bought a $1.8 million home in North Carolina in 2006. But Coats said he has also remained active in Indiana, and that he and wife Marcia are moving back to the state “to stay.” Has he been a lobbyist? Yes – something Coats said he did for financial reasons after serving in political office, and reported as required by law.
But given the lobbyists within the supposedly lobbyist-free Obama administration, and election-driven residence changes of such stalwarts as Hillary Clinton, Robert Kennedy and, yes, Evan Bayh, Democrats will have a tough time making those charges stick. Bayh is likely to donate his now-unneeded $13 million war chest to his party and other Democratic candidates, according to his Fort Wayne office.
I'm not endorsing Coats, who will face no less than four other Republicans in the primary. But I've known and respected him for years, and have no doubt he's right when he says traditional Republican principles in Congress are an essential antidote to the left-wing ideologue who will occupy the White House for the next three years.
And if the Republicans abandon those principles again, heaven help them – and the rest of us.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 461-8355