He Speaks From Experience: Max Baucus on “Squandered Leadership”

They say “hindsight is 20-20” and certainly it’s not uncommon to look back and acknowledge the path not taken. It’s even more evident for former politicians who often make pronouncements that seem inconsistent with their behavior while in office.

So it was when Montana’s former U.S. Senator, Democrat Max Baucus, opined last week that the U.S. was “squandering leadership” while referring to the trip eight sitting Republican senators, including Montana’s Steve Daines, made to Russia over the Fourth of July. Combining the increasingly inflammatory relationships with America’s long-time allies and 20-20 hindsight, it’s no surprise Baucus understands exactly what “squandering leadership” means.

As our longest-serving senator, Baucus was Montana’s voice in the U.S. Senate, once described as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Perhaps in the old days, when the true orators held forth to eloquently debate important policies to serve the public, that description was accurate. But in the last several decades the Senate has morphed into “the 100 individuals most targeted by wealthy special interests.” Those are the same wealthy special interests senators rely on for their multi-million dollar campaigns and that contributed to many of Baucus’ own “squandered leadership” opportunities throughout his years in the Senate.

Rolling back through time, let’s remember that it was Max Baucus who tried to exempt mining waste from the Superfund law in the late ’80s. Mind you, this was coming from a Montana senator whose home state contains the largest Superfund site in the nation. Stretching from Butte and Anaconda for 100 miles down the Clark Fork River to the Milltown Dam, the Clark Fork Superfund complex was easily among the nation’s most challenging and worthy restoration projects.

Instead, Baucus “squandered leadership” when he could have brought national attention to the enormous task of cleaning up those communities and the river that connected them. He could have strengthened the Superfund law to ensure a full and complete cleanup for the vast number of mining-related waste sites across the West. He could have put the kibosh on the secret back-room deals between regulators and those responsible for the pollution. And he could have ensured permanent funding for the Superfund program until all of America’s toxic waste sites were cleaned up.

But since the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) had inherited responsibility for the clean-up, its lobbyists went to work convincing Baucus that, unlike barrels of toxic waste, mining and smelting produced “high volume, low-toxicity” wastes that didn’t belong under Superfund and its onerous requirement that polluters pay for remediation. Luckily for Montana, Western states’ attorneys general opposed and ultimately killed Baucus’ amendment.

And then there was Obamacare. The Democrats controlled majorities in both chambers of Congress as well as the presidency. But when the opportunity to lead fell on Baucus’ shoulders, he “squandered leadership” health care in the U.S. in favor of putting insurance companies between patients and their doctors. Montanans were demonstrating at his offices for single-payer — or at least a public option — but whose desires Baucus ignored in favor of those very wealthy insurance company lobbyists, one of whom he actually hired to write Obamacare. By including the incredibly unpopular “individual mandate” to buy insurance or be fined by the federal government, Baucus doomed his fellow Democrats to their minority status when they could have been heroes.

Believe Baucus when he says the U.S. is “squandering leadership” at home and around the globe — it’s something he knows all too well. Unfortunately we, as well as future generations, will suffer the consequences of Baucus’ own squandered leadership for years to come.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.