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What Happened to Last Year's Max Baucus?


"[T]he main reason to be hopeful about the prospects for universal health care," writes Matt Yglesias, "wasn’t so much the election of a new progressive president as the fact that Max Baucus, one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus and also Chairman of the Finance Committee, had essentially adopted the main outline of Hillary Clinton’s universal health care plan."

Baucus's white paper (pdf), in fact, went a bit further than Clinton's plan. Not only was there a public option, but there were also two years where the system was ramping up and people between 55 and 65 could purchase Medicare. This struck me as a very good idea, and the sort of thing that could lead to Medicare being opened up to the 55-to-64 set permanently. But as the debate wore on, all of these ideas vanished and Baucus retrenched to something much more conservative. The result, as Matt says, was a bit disastrous.

It seems to me that we’re stuck in a dysfunctional dynamic where you have a powerful centrist senator lay some ideas out (including, for example, a public option), which leads progressives to embrace them as a realistic path to reform, which leads the centrist ideas to be rebranded as left-wing ideas which, in turn, leads to the ideas being abandoned by centrists. Very hard to accomplish anything that way.

I'd phrase this slightly differently: Baucus pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch. That paper proved less his plan than his effort to articulate the Democratic consensus in such a way that Democrats were comfortable with him leading the debate. In particular, Kennedy had to be happy with that paper, because Kennedy was the threat to Baucus's leadership.

But Kennedy's illness took him out of the game. Baucus no longer needed to worry about Kennedy stealing the leadership of health-care reform away from him, which meant he stopped looking over his left shoulder. The effect was a bit like shutting down a primary challenge against Baucus: His surprising leftward lurch stopped entirely, and he drifted back to the more centrist approaches that had defined his career. It's hard to say how the process would have differed if Baucus had spent his days worrying about keeping Kennedy onboard, but it seems possible that the practical impact would have been to keep Baucus closer to the paper he'd written to attract Kennedy's support.

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 4, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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So in essence you're describing a man with no convictions. He just wants to be a player. Well, I would say his lack of convictions have taken him out of play. He has no credibility left. He is a laughing stock on the right, the left, and the center. He's been played and everyone knows it.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | September 4, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Don't pay too much attention to the "approaches" or "convictions" of a Senator whose campaign coffers bulge with contributions from industries affected by health care reform. Follow the money.

Posted by: bill0465 | September 4, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I happen to agree with the Klein/Yg analysis.

On the flip side, though, this is what puts the President in a potentially good position right now. If he uses a speech to acknowledge all facets of discussion to date, proposes a realistic solution, and makes a definite call for action, it might just break the cycle (or at least kick it along).

Timing is everything, and it's getting more critical: for example, yesterday there were reports about Perriello and today there are reports about the start of the campaign of his opponents. If Washington can't break its own cycle, the Nation might just step in and help.

Posted by: rmgregory | September 4, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Don't forget that Baucus is from Montana, which voted for John McCain over Barack Obama. And that he's hearing lots of concerns from his constituents about the health care reform proposals.

Posted by: VirginiaIndependent | September 4, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Asking what happened to Max Baucus to swing him rightward leads to the same question regarding Barak Obama.

If, in fact, he was progressive before just to claim leadership over Kennedy (when Kennedy was active), and swung right because Ted was taken from the team lineup, then he's a manipulative lying sack of crap that shouldn't be holding any power in the Democratic party.

His actions with regard to the gang of six pursuade me that the explanation is simpler (although the Ted thing allowed him to be a what he's always been): he's a bought man. What he's received so far from healthcare insurance companies and pharma is just the down payment (Christmas Club, revived!), and he gets the retirement goodies after he's delivered on 'no change' and 'no reform', and 'more industry subsidies and giveaways'. Max Baucus and Billy Tauzin (ex-Congress, now Senator from Pharma), sitting in a tree, eating that ripe fruit from the sellout.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | September 4, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

In other words, Max Baucus is a coward. Good to know.

Posted by: mslavick | September 4, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

What mslavick said.

Posted by: PorkBelly | September 4, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

"...he drifted back to the more centrist approaches that had defined his career."

Baucus and his ilk are not centrists, they are Right Leaning Conservative Democrats, to call them centrists implies that most of the people in the country agree with them and the is simply NOT the case on many if not most issues.

Posted by: henk2 | September 4, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

How different would this debate have been if Hillary had stayed in the Senate? She could have redeemed her health care cred and taken up Kennedy's cause. Quite a platform upon which to build a long and powerful career. Read is weak, there is no progressive or even true Democratic voice in the Senate that anyone will put on TV, so I think Hill passed up a chance to be a real player.

Posted by: chasm3 | September 4, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

It is clear to everyone now that Baucus is a snake that should never be trusted.

Posted by: cautious | September 5, 2009 2:23 AM | Report abuse

What Happened? Not much except more and more "Contributions",that P.C. for the word "Bribe".
Max and company never met a Dollar,a check,or a stuffed brown bag of cash under the table,that they did not enjoy for themselfs.
The only big "Change" is to their advantage,threaten,make noise about "Reform",shake that Money Tree and the money flows in at record rates. The shake Down Racket works on all issues and bills before Congress,just ask Senators Dodd and Conrad ( victims of country-wide sweetheart mortgages ) how that works.
Folow the money.

Posted by: jeromejmarkiewicz | September 5, 2009 2:28 AM | Report abuse

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