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The Nicest Thing You Can Say About Max Baucus

The Montana senator is everything wrong with politics—but he made ObamaCare possible

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senator Max Baucus is retiring. And that means you are about to read a lot of stories about how awful his tenure was, particularly for progressives.

You’ll hear about how Baucus voted against the DREAM Act and, just a week ago, how he opposed background checks for guns. You’ll hear about the way he undercut the Democrats in 2001, cutting a deal with Republicans that led to enactment of the Bush tax cuts, and how he broke ranks in 2009, in order to help defeat a bill that would have helped people struggling with mortgages. One theme in these stories will be Baucus’s political cowardice. Another will be his close relationship with corporate lobbyists, so many of whom worked for him before taking up their positions on K Street. Baucus is chairman of the Finance Committee, giving him enormous influence. Various positions he took on taxes, home mortgages, and so many other issues took meant poor and middle-class Americans were worse off. But those lobbyists appealing to Baucus made out well—and so did their clients.

You should read these stories, because they are true. It’s not a huge exaggeration to say Baucus's career represents everything that is wrong with Washington—or that he's one reason so many voters seem skeptical when Democrats say they are fighting for the little guy. When the issue was patients versus the drug companies, Baucus sided with the drug companies. When the issue was homeowners versus the banks, Baucus sided with the banks. That’s bad optics and, worse, it’s bad policy.

Still, an assessment of Baucus deserves at least two caveats—one obvious, one not so obvious. The first is that he’s from Montana. And Montana is not Massachusetts. In a recent survey by the Gallup organization,  Montana was among the ten most conservative states according to most of the measures—percentage who lean Republican, the gap between conservatives and liberals, Obama disapproval rating, and so on. The state’s voters usually vote for the Republicans in presidential elections and they frequently do so by large margins. George W. Bush carried the state by more than 20 points. Twice. That shouldn't make it impossible to take a vote that defies the state's conservative instincts: Senator Jon Tester, also from Montana, managed to support background checks last week. But it does mean that Montana Democrats are going to defect from time to time. It's that simple.

The other caveat is about health care reform. Most people think of Baucus as the guy who cut all those awful deals with lobbyists for the health care industry—and who let negotiations in the Finance Committee bog down in the summer of 2009, exposing the effort to a political backlash that very nearly killed the entire enterprise. I think there’s a lot to those critiques, although neither one is as clear-cut as it might seem. At least some of those deals were necessary in order to get legislation through Congress. The pharmaceutical lobby could have killed health care reform all by itself, if it had chosen to do so. It didn’t.1 As for the Finance Committee negotiations, Baucus was naïve to think he ever had a shot at winning over Republicans like Charles Grassley, the ranking minority member. But the painstaking effort to win over Republicans gave cover to more conservative Democrats who ended up supporting the bill.

But Baucus’ key contribution to health care reform was the one almost nobody remembers. In 2008, Baucus issued a lengthy white paper outlining a health reform plan similar to what other Democrats, including then-nominee Obama, had proposed. The details of the plan weren’t that important. The signal it sent was. In 1993 and 1994, the previous attempt at health care reform, the chairman of the Finance Committee was the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He had little interest in, or patience with, health care reform—and that ambivalence (some would say it was more like hostility) was a major obstacle to enactment. With that 2008 white paper, Baucus put down a clear marker: He was in. Whatever his reasons—a desire to serve the public, a determination to protect his turf—that decision made possible everything that happened afterwards.

Baucus’s retirement opens interesting possibilities for the future. His Senate seat might go to former Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who remains popular in the state. It appears that Schweitzer, like Baucus, would reliably break with the party over issues like energy and guns. (Schweitzer has actually cited his position on guns as a reason he couldn’t win a presidential election, since public opinion on the whole is more sympathetic to gun control.) But his voting record could hardly be worse than the one that Baucus compiled. And elements of his record—signing a law creating full-time kindergarten, proposing Montana adopt a “single-payer” health system—suggest at least some progressive instincts.

More consequential still might be the change of leadership at Senate Finance. Chairmanship traditionally goes by seniority and the next in line would be Ron Wyden, from Oregon. Wyden isn’t all that popular among his colleagues or at the White House, and progressives still remember him as the guy who produced a paper with Paul Ryan, giving the latter credibility on entitlement reform. But Wyden represents a state that leans strongly Democratic, he fancies himself a policy nerd, he’s got not a whiff of corruption about him, and he’s still a bona fide liberal by any reasonable standard. (For example, compare his ratings from the Club for Growth and Americans for Democratic Action.) The Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, which includes not just taxes but also Medicare and Social Security, arguably makes it the most powerful in Congress. If Democrats hold the majority and if Wyden then becomes chairman—both "if"s at this point—he would be well to the left of anybody who has run the committee in at least 75 years. That could be huge.

So, yes, you can feel good that Baucus is on the way out. But don’t forget the state he represented—or his role in making possible the most significant policy achievement in a generation. That counts for something, too.

  1. Baucus didn’t like the public option but he had plenty of company on that, including among some liberals who feared a public plan would hurt hospitals in their states.