Coats reemerges in a new era
KOKOMO - Dan Coats came of age politically when he emerged from Dan Quayle's shadow during the thrust of the Reagan Revolution. He is the only Hoosier not named "Lugar" or "Bayh" to hold a U.S. Senate seat since 1989. He is undefeated. He has been married only once.
And he surprised just about everyone when he reemerged as a candidate on Ground Hog's Day - 12 years after having last held elective office and 18 years since he was last on a ballot. He had decided to take on U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh after the Republican field failed to raise money and Coats was alarmed at the direction of the country under President Obama. When the news got out, former Sen. Phil Gramm dialed him up to inquire how his "second marriage" was faring. It was a joke, of course, Marcia Coats had fully signed off on his return to senatorial politics.
In late 1998, Coats stopped by for a final chat. After eight years in the House and 10 years in the Senate, he wanted to move on. He was tired on the constant need to raise money and the nastiness of the process that was careening toward impeachment of President Clinton. And there was the senator's son - Evan Bayh - waiting in the wings to reclaim his father's Senate seat.
After our conversaton, Coats walked out the door, only to return. "I could have beat Evan Bayh," he said before walking away. Was this to be "unfinished business," Coats acknowledged, "To be candid with you, a little bit."
"I had committed to term limits. I wanted to honor that commitment," he said. "But I did feel bad that in a sense I opened the door and turned a Republican seat into a Democratic seat."
Thirteen days after Coats decided to run, Bayh retired. After an aide called him with the news, Coats was thunderstruck. “I can’t believe it,” he said about 12 seconds later.
As Coats pondered a return to politics, he was warned that things had changed since he last ran in 1992. "I had former colleagues that called and said, 'This is an entirely different ball game. You sure you want to do this?' We went in with eyes wide open."
Had the decision come in a normal way with months of planning, Coats would have done things differently. "It was the last thing I was considering," Coats said. "I would have taken a number of steps earlier if I thought I was getting back in preparation for that. We have this second home in North Carolina and I certainly would have sold that." Within weeks of his return, Democrats posted a YouTube video of Coats talking about retiring to North Carolina.
And it has been eye opening. Back in 1992, the Internet was still in diapers. When he left office, newspapers and TV stations were just turning to the Internet. Now there are blogs run by “journalists” without degrees and with agendas.
"The most major change is the Internet," he explained. "The ways and means of communication and the access to information is so extraordinary. There's no filter. You can take anything you want to say, make any allegation and you can make it anonymously. There's no editor you can call and say, 'Hey, wait a minute.' Or 'here's my story.' “
Indications of the change came almost immediately. Earlier in the day on Feb. 2, Bayh told a group of visitors in his Senate office that he had to "go deal with a German ambassador." Howey Politics Indiana broke the news about Coats that night and called Indiana Democratic Chairman Dan Parker for a comment. He responded by reciting Ambassador Coats' ties to Bank of America as a lobbyist.
"I can tell you the difference between the former campaign (1992) and this one is people like this guy," Coats said, pointing to Pete Seat, his communications director. "You give him a piece of news, he gets on the Internet and he's all over it. You type in ‘Lobbying Disclosure Act’ and ‘Coats’ and boom! That information is there. It is revolutionary. So when Parker heard I was doing this, boom, he went to the Internet and I think he had that stuff in an hour."
Another sea change is the "I gotcha" dynamic. "It's not what you stand for, who you are, what you did, or your resume," Coats said. "It's we're going to catch you making a mistake. And we're going to blast that and that's going to be our campaign."
Any candidate playing at the congressional level has to be aware of the “Macaca” moment, as Sen. George Allen learned in 2006. “Everywhere I go there is a camera on me recording,” Coats said. “It used to be you’d call a press conference, the press would show up and that was your message.
Today it’s what door did you enter? What restaurant did you eat at? I’ve had people outside my house. I’ve had people checking to see when I come home. I’ve had people posing as journalists at a Republican event.”