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Giving Max Baucus Some Credit

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Was Max Baucus misjudged? Jon Chait thinks so:

I've been pretty hard on Max Baucus for a while, especially as he spent months and months negotiating fruitlessly while Democratic political capital rotted away. But it's worth pointing out that his plan, assuming he had one, worked perfectly. Three months ago, the main storyline in the press on health care centered on whether Democrats would craft a bipartisan bill (yay!) or go it alone (boo!) Through his painstaking, and often pathetic, desire to reach an agreement with the GOP, Baucus proved beyond a doubt that serious GOP support for any remotely comprehensive health care reform was totally impossible. Indeed, the "go it alone" theme was all but disappeared from the press coverage. Meanwhile, the right-wing grassroots anti-reform insanity has largely burned itself out, and the popularity of President Obama and his health care reform has bounced back.

There's something to this. It's hard to say whether it was a risky strategy (no one predicted August, nor knew in advance how quickly it would burn out) or simply a happy, if unplanned, outcome. But whatever it was, it seems to have worked. In particular, it seems to have worked with conservative Democrats, who were the target audience. Unlike liberals, they wanted a leisurely, bipartisan process, and they got one: It just didn't end up producing many Republican votes. But they were sufficiently satisfied with the attempt that they've been generally supportive of the overall project ever since. The disagreements are confined to policies within health-care reform, like the public option, rather than erupting over whether health-care reform should be pursued in the first place.

To put it slightly differently, if you imagine that Max Baucus was given responsibility for keeping conservative Senate Democrats committed to health-care reform (and that's how his role was often described at the beginning, with Kennedy and then Dodd playing the same role for liberals), it appears he has succeeded. Indeed, if Baucus's schedule partly led to the long month of August, you also have to give him credit for not losing a single Democrat in its aftermath, and for having the savvy to use the release of his bill and CBO score to change the media's narrative and refocus the conversation on the advancing legislative process.

Photo credit: Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 15, 2009; 10:35 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Comments

*****It's hard to say whether it was a risky strategy (no one predicted August, nor knew in advance how quickly it would burn out) or simply a happy, if unplanned, outcome*****

My guess would be a little of both. I suspect from the getgo the White House and congressional Democrats saw the wisdom of preserving comity, and of trying to foster a perception of reasonableness, for as long as possible, so that when things (inevitably) got more partisan, they'd be seen as the good guys.

Posted by: Jasper99 | October 15, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

He wasn't going to lose Democrats on his committee regardless. Democrats on the Finance Committee wasted three months to deliver what their financial backers in the health insurance industry demanded: time to protest and kill the public option.

If Baucus had plunged ahead last spring and summer, when the other four committees in Congress were doing and finishing their work, the momentum would have made the bills, including a robust public option, unstoppable.

Instead, whether Baucus had Obama's support to hobble the Finance Committee bill or whether Baucus was directly forced by insurance companies to damage the bill, he deserves no credit for finally reporting a bill that could have been finished three months ago. He deserves scorn. If Baucus, and Obama, would have moved decisively last spring, and acted sooner, they would have produced a much better bill.

Posted by: NealB1 | October 15, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

The counterargument is that Health Care Reform has lost a *lot* of liberal enthusiasm and support. Congressional leadership and the White House are banking on progressives to hold their nose and vote for whatever comes out, and they may be right. That being said, if the Democrats can't get their base excited and enthusiastic before the 2010 midterms then the Republican gains could end up being much larger than they thought--even into disastrous Charlie Cook-esque territory. I honestly believe that the smartest thing for Democrats to do politically is to pass a solid, progressive bill that will excite their base enough to counter a lot of the tea party nonsense. By the time most Americans head back to the voting booth (2012), the struggles and partisan fights will be long gone from peoples' minds. The question will instead be: did they pass a bill, and does it look like it will work?

Posted by: OSheaman | October 15, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

"...no one predicted August..."

Wow, what? I think plenty of people predicted this. Isn't "no one could have predicted" the single biggest cop-out language from the previous administration?

Posted by: mslavick | October 15, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I agree with OSheaman here. You're trying to whitewash August, Ezra -- those of us who were born and raised in red states knew something like this was coming down the pike a la the swift boats of '04 and the Palin rallies of '08. In addition to assuming that progressives like Anthony Weiner and Jerry Nadler are going to roll over on the public option you're also assuming (with some evidence to the contrary) that Lieberman, Lincoln, Landrieu, and both Nelsons will vote for the final legislation or at least allow an up-and-down vote.

There are some major twists and turns ahead, so please tamp down the glib "we've never been closer!" and "the public option -- who cares?" rhetoric you've been spouting for months now. We won't have a signed law until we have a signed law, and the victory lap seems premature at best.

Posted by: scarlota | October 15, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

"I am not afraid of August. It is a month."
-- Nancy Pelosi, July 23
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/us/politics/24health.html?_r=2&hp

Posted by: sprung4 | October 15, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Ezra must be right. Everything was for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. Allrightythen!

Posted by: redscott | October 15, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Nice post. The legislative process is always mysterious and a surprise when something actually emerges. I'm only going to quibble about whether the astro-turf protest burned themselves out. Instead, I feel Obama had to stamp out that stupidity. It was Obama who halted the declining support. Obama was on my T.V. for the whole month of September. Sheesh, he's still on it. He's pushing hard and seems to channeling his inner LBJ and this is good for Democrats.

Posted by: Muley63 | October 15, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while.

Baucus's test is here. For reasons known only to Max his original Health Care Plan is linked via a banner on the Finance Committee's website's front page. It is called "Call to Action: Health Care Reform 2009" and is dated Nov 12th, 2008.
http://finance.senate.gov/healthreform2009/finalwhitepaper.pdf

The text explicitly calls this "The Baucus Plan" and so one would assume it represents Max's real views. And it includes along with many other very good features, a public plan. So either Max spent the last six months or so willing to discard key elements of his own plan in order to get sixty votes, or he was being a little disingenuous back in Nov 2008. The Baucus Plan outlined in "Call to Action" is much closer to the HELP Bill than the approved SFC Mark and now that attempts to reach across the aisle have been rebuffed it is time for Max to show his true colors. Will he allow a plan very close to "Call to Action" to form the basis of the bill that goes to the Senate floor or not?

In short does Baucus support the Baucus Plan that is STILL highlighted on the front page of his Committee website?

Posted by: BruceWebb | October 15, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

The correct answer is: all of the above.

Posted by: HalHorvath | October 15, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

This exact same "he had it under control the whole time" phenomenon is gonna benefit Obama as well. I think both Barack and Max had a lot less influence over the ebbs and flows of healthcare legislation than they would like to admit, but if it passes, they'll get the credit. Pundits and historians will find ways to frame events to make them seem like geniuses all along.

Posted by: CarlosXL | October 15, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Bloggah please!

Max Baucus has two driving concerns that render everything else virtually moot - narcissism and self-preservation. You know that, Ezra. Why play this game of pretending that he might be some sort of master gamesman, manipulating the Senate, the punditry, and the country to bend to his altruistic will. Even for one post. He's out to enhance his power and cement his position in The Village.

You can't really believe that, "There's something to this", can you? Have you ever heard Max Baucus say anything that was remotely insightful? Do you have any historical indication the he is anything remotely resembling this brilliant, Machiavellian savant? WTF!

If, indeed, he might be this master puppeteer that Chait proposes, don't you think he might have done a little more with the political capital that the combination of congressional majorities, presidential approval ratings, and polling support for the public option gave him? He got the absolute least out of what he had to work with, and, I suspect that you know that.

In the end I find it pretty sad that this is even explored. Max Baucus does not care about the specifics of HCR and how it affects Americans. He cares about the politics and the optics.

Can we all just please acknowledge that fact? Play your inside baseball all you want. Just don't pretend that it's something it's not.

Posted by: dresslar | October 15, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

How very Village.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | October 15, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

"None of the regulations in the Senate Finance Committee bill would apply to the self-insured market---ever, as Senator Rockefeller has pointed out several times. The self-insured market is about 47% of the entire insured population, about 70 million Americans or so."

The Baucus bill completely ignores people who don't have company health insurance - except to force them to buy a policy.

What does that do to me? They won't sell me a policy and since I'm self-employed they don't have to. So I get fined for not meeting the mandate even though they make it impossible to meet the mandate?

And Obama - and Chait - are PRAISING Max Baucus?

Hello?

Posted by: akmakm | October 15, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Ezra is correct here: the target all along was the marginal Dems, and this was the way to give them cover (in a world where, as everyone knew from the start, GOP votes weren't there to get).

For more, here's what I said on Tuesday:
http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/2009/10/baucus-triumphant.html

And what I said at the beginning of August:
"[W]e're going to see a lot of just-for-show negotiation, with Democrats who know that there are very few Republicans interested in a compromise bill needing to go a long ways toward convincing the press that the GOP is, in fact, unreasonable."

http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/2009/08/following-news-counting-votes-on-health.html

That was the strategy, and while there's no way of knowing whether a different strategy would have produced a better bill, I think the downside risks of trying to ram it through the Senate as quickly as possible were very, very high.

(Commenters are correct that August was predictable -- but also not preventable, and it was better for the Dems to have August before the bills got to the floor, not after).

Posted by: jonathanbernstein | October 15, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

If Obama wanted a public option he should have pushed hard for it earlier. As soon as Waxman caved to negotiated rates it was all downhill from there.

And as Brad DeLong pointed out, the markup also resulted in a choice to weaken the mandate rather than strengthen the subsidies which may be hard to undo.

Posted by: bmull | October 15, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I honestly believe that the smartest thing for Democrats to do politically is to pass a solid, progressive bill that will excite their base enough to counter a lot of the tea party nonsense. By the time most Americans head back to the voting booth (2012), the struggles and partisan fights will be long gone from peoples' minds. The question will instead be: did they pass a bill, and does it look like it will work?

Posted by: OSheaman | October 15, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse


seriously? Do you even pay attention to this? The economy (unless you're on Wall Street) is in the crapper and not getting better fast enough for anyone and the majority of the benefits of the plans take effect well after the 2012 elections but the NEGATIVES (taxes) happen before. So we're poor, we're taxed more and we don't even get the benefits. I'm sorry I smell disaster for Democrats. I don't know that Republicans could have scripted it better (although I think its basically dumb luck on their part as they don't as a group seem that bright).

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 15, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

jonathanbernstein:

The theory that, "the target all along was the marginal Dems", is, to put it mildly, off-target. The "target all along" was the insurance lobby. Period. A bill that they couldn't live with was NEVER going to come out of the Finance Committee. That was THE factor for Baucus. Everything else was classic Village kabuki.

They compromised with the insurance lobby. The "marginal Dems" just happened to be aligned with them. You really don't believe that they couldn't possibly have dragged along the Blue Dogs into some real reform do you? Given their starting position after the election? I mean, if they weren't in the pocket of the lobbyists also.

And then this:

"[W]e're going to see a lot of just-for-show negotiation, with Democrats who know that there are very few Republicans interested in a compromise bill needing to go a long ways toward convincing the press that the GOP is, in fact, unreasonable."

You print that graf as if it's been validated in some way. They haven't "convinced the press", in any sense whatsoever, that the GOP is acting unreasonably. They haven't even tried for God's sake.

Look, I'm not trying to be a d*ck, but, to delude ourselves into thinking that this was the best we could have hoped for, or, that Max Baucus is a dazzlingly wily political operative, is counterproductive to the point of being destructive to the general cause.

Posted by: dresslar | October 15, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and for screwing Ron Wyden to the wall.

Because Wyden was much more deserving of that fate that Grassley or Conrad.

Posted by: member5 | October 15, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

i don't care, max baucus is still dead to me after his middle-of-the-night shenanigans that killed wyden's free choice amendment. and to think that baucus was one of the first politicians i ever actively campaigned for in my life. oh well, what does a 4th grader know?

and yes, i understand the whole sausage-making analogy. still, i'd rather watch sausage be made - entrails don't disgust me nearly as much as the stunt baucus pulled on wyden.

Posted by: trishka_cvo | October 15, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

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