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.
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