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Why Max Baucus Needed Ted Kennedy

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The Missoula Independent has a long and thorough profile of Max Baucus. The conclusion is particularly trenchant:

No one doubts that Baucus is putting in the necessary work to accomplish it. In fact, observers say that he thrives in the difficulties posed by these complicated negotiations, that he's a "glutton for punishment," that bloodying his face during a marathon and then continuing to run reveals the nature of his work ethic. But there's a distinction to be made, some say, between what Baucus brings to the table and what the situation calls for—namely, leadership.

"I think we've reached a juncture, probably in history, where there's a difference between hard work and leadership," says Dave McAlpin, a member of the Montana House of Representatives who worked on Baucus' re-election campaign in 1990 and in his Bozeman office from 1992 to 1995. "Mike Mansfield passed historic legislation because of his leadership ability. And Max needs to exhibit that he can bring this issue to the fore and get a good bill passed to solve an enormous problem—probably the biggest policy problem and issue of our time—through leadership, not just hard work. I think it's too soon to tell whether Max will be successful."

When I was researching my own profile of Max Baucus, a Finance Committee source made an interesting point to me. Baucus, she said, has a very similar legislative approach to Ted Kennedy. He has long relationships with Republican senators. He has an overwhelming instinct to cut a deal. But they are viewed differently. If Baucus had been President Bush's partner on No Child Left Behind, for instance, it would be part of the case against him. But Kennedy was the president's partner on that, and suffered no blow to his liberal credibility. Kennedy is beyond reproach because he's Kennedy.

This, however, gets to this question of work and leadership. Kennedy has, over the years, given people on both sides of the aisle a pretty clear sense of his core values. So too have other liberal dealmakers, like Henry Waxman, and conservative dealmakers, like Orrin Hatch. So when Kennedy cuts a deal that seems to diverge from his principles, there's an underlying sense of trust that that was the best deal he could get. The problem for Baucus right now is that few trust him, or have a real sense of his core principles. He doesn't have the credibility to cut the deal on behalf of the liberals. If Kennedy walked out of that room with a weak public plan but excellent coverage provisions, a lot of liberals would be willing to accept his explanation. If Baucus announces the same deal, he will enjoy no similar forbearance.

Which gets to one of the problems with Kennedy's absence. I'm not one who believes any particular legislator is indispensable to the process. But it was very common for Hill staffers to tell me that Baucus and Kennedy understood each other's roles in health-care reform. Baucus needed Kennedy to bring the liberals on board and Kennedy needed Baucus to negotiate with the moderates. Without Kennedy, though, you just have Baucus negotiating with the moderates, which has left liberals increasingly angry at the process and mistrustful of the final product.


Photo credit: The Washington Post Photo .

By Ezra Klein  |  July 30, 2009; 1:50 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: Megan McArdle's Case Against National Health Insurance. Sort of.

Comments

NPR recently published an article titled "WHO HAS ACCESS TO MAX BAUCUS?" about the power and influence of the health insurance lobby in Washington. It is eye opening to say the least...

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106655060

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Posted by: letsgobuffalo | July 30, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Love the look on the right-hand woman's face. Says it all.

Posted by: AZProgressive | July 30, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Who are you kidding? Most of us knew Baucus was a jerk as soon as he said that a single payer system would not even be considered.

Posted by: goadri | July 30, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, is this some kind of a joke? The main difference between Kennedy and Baucus isn't that one is "a Kennedy" and the other some no name Senator, and it isn't even that one has "core principles" and the other doesn't--its that one of them *really, really, really* wants to pass universal health care and the other one really wants to destroy it. No one trusts Baucus because he insists he's dealing with "moderates" whose votes are necessary to a good bill. In this reality we know he is dealing with Republican extremists who will certainly not sign on to *any* bill for fear that it will be a good bill, a new deal, and ensure democratic majorities as far as the eye can see. There is zero chance that the people Baucus pretends to be working with are working in good faith. And everyone seems to know this but Baucus. Or, if he's not terminally stupid, he's been stringing along the true moderates and centrists in the Democratic party by promising something he knows he can't deliver. OK?

aimai

Posted by: aimai | July 30, 2009 6:43 PM | Report abuse

kennedy would "deliver" the liberals to baucus?

how absurd!

Posted by: jamesoneill | July 30, 2009 8:23 PM | Report abuse

What do you consider a 'moderate'?Surely not any Republicans.

Posted by: par4 | July 31, 2009 7:47 AM | Report abuse

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