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Max Baucus, The Insider’s Insider


You hate to kick a guy while he’s up, but is anyone else weary of the relentlessly laudatory news stories about former Sen. Max Baucus?

After Baucus was nominated and then won confirmation as the new U.S. ambassador to China, it was inevitable that barrels of ink would be spilled to chronicle his 39-year run as a House member and senator.

I suppose it was also inevitable that the stories would be overwhelmingly positive. Unless your congressman is trading his seat for a prison bunk, the press is generally quite kind to retiring politicians. And Baucus was never one of those power-hungry, arrogant pols, never a fire-breathing partisan, never vindictive, petty or corrupt in the old-fashioned sense of Tammany Hall corruption.

Above all, Baucus was supremely good at doing what senators from small-population states are supposed to do: build up enough seniority to steer a disproportionate flow of federal money to the folks back home.

In his long career in Washington, Baucus sent home the pork in a convoy of dump trucks, then sent the empty trucks out for loads of asphalt to build more roads.

And yet…

In that flood of press accounts I saw barely a hint of what is hardly a secret, that in all those years Baucus somehow failed to connect with the people of this state in a deep and lasting way. After his earliest campaigns, was there ever any sense of excitement outside the circle of his closest supporters?

If there had been a genuine affinity between Baucus and his constituents, it probably wouldn’t have been necessary to stage those rather awkward annual events where he slipped into a pair of Carhartts and spent the day “working” with regular Joes.

Baucus had none of the sage-like charisma of Mike Mansfield, the blue-collar appeal of Pat Williams, the combative bluster of Brian Schweitzer or the cornpone bonhomie of Conrad Burns.

The Insider’s Insider

It’s no crime to lack spark, but in Baucus’ case the absence of connection was directly related to how much more comfortable he seemed in Washington than he did when he came back to Montana. He was the professional insider, the quiet political functionary who knows all the right people and trims his sails to catch every passing breeze.

His signal achievement at the end of his Senate career was shepherding the Affordable Care Act through Congress. Does anyone believe that he did what he felt would be best for regular people, for the uninsured, for taxpayers? From the beginning, he rejected the Canadian model — government-funded, with services provided by private organizations.

Instead, he and a few other political insiders, in consultation with insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry and other big-money interests, came up with a system so complex and flawed that it could have been served on a silver platter to the Republican Party.

We were asked to believe that crafting the ACA was a very deep game, one that we here in the hinterlands couldn’t possibly comprehend, and that if we would just allow the rich and powerful to make decisions for us, all would be right in the end. No wonder the Chinese leaders seem to believe they have found a kindred soul in the new U.S. ambassador.

Even in what Baucus supposedly did right, there is an indication of what is so wrong in Washington. Bringing home the bacon is more or less the crux of politics in a system of government like ours. In the clash of competing interests, the end result is supposed to reflect the common good.

But when politicians are buying each other’s support with a no-limit credit card, it’s easy to be friendly, to indulge in bipartisanship. Trouble is, you wake up one day and your country is $17 trillion in debt.

So, sure, let’s thank Baucus for his many years of service. And then let’s hope that one of these days we send someone to Washington who doesn’t believe that success means becoming a Washingtonian.

Ed Kemmick lives in Billings, Montana and edits

Ed Kemmick lives in Billings, Montana and edits

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