POLITICS JULY 10, 2006
There is something a bit troubling about the Democrats' current obsession with discipline, as though there were no higher aspiration than matching the ruthless efficiency of the House Republicans. A political party is not the same as a Third World liberation movement. It ought to accommodate moments of dissent and occasional deviations from the party line without the forms of retribution that have recently taken hold in the liberal blogosphere.
But apostasy comes in gradations: There is heterodoxy, and then there is Montana Senator Max Baucus. Baucus isn't in the mold of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who flirted with reasonable ideas taboo among Democratic constituencies. He doesn't take quirky procedural stands, a la Russ Feingold. He's not even a Zell Miller-like figure who rhetorically strafes his party but does little substantive damage. What Baucus does is use his influence as the top Democrat on the Finance Committee to systematically undercut his party and enable George W. Bush's most egregious domestic legislation. So why does his party entrust him with so much responsibility?
We were reminded of this question during this month's estate-tax debate. On one side was the vast majority of Republicans, who kvetch about the cosmic unfairness of taxing the top 1 percent of family fortunes. On the other side was the vast majority of Democrats, who see the estate tax as a reasonable, if modest, curb on the excesses of dynastic wealth. And in the middle was Baucus, an opponent of the tax, pushing a last-minute compromise that would dramatically scale it back. Baucus says he was trying to make the best of a difficult situation, since the tax will be reined in one way or another. But his compromise doesn't merely split differences; its price tag is nearly 70 percent of the cost of outright repeal, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. And it reveals precisely why Baucus shouldn't be in such a sensitive position: He understands statesmanship strictly in terms of the size of the concession he makes; the more he concedes, the more Churchillian he thinks he is.
If you look closely enough at recent domestic policy debacles, you'll invariably see his fingerprints. Facing George W. Bush's massive tax-cut proposal in 2001, Baucus undermined the Senate Democrats' strategy of forcing concessions by maintaining a united front. In private negotiations with his GOP counterpart, Chuck Grassley, Baucus produced a bill that handed the White House virtually all of its top priorities. Afterward, he boasted that he'd done Democrats a favor, since they "would have been in trouble in 2002 just saying no to every one of the president's proposals." We shudder to think what might have happened had the Democrats been labeled "obstructionist."
Then there was the 2003 Medicare debate. Baucus, true to his method, agreed to a set of procedural conditions that undermined Democratic unity and preordained a disastrous outcome. Then he used the little authority he retained to--how to put it?--give away the store. In addition to agreeing to Health Savings Accounts--a gambit that he had once condemned as irresponsible--Baucus assented to a provision preventing Medicare from negotiating discounts with pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Baucus and his defenders--alternately known as his press office--make two arguments on his behalf. The first is that Baucus is simply doing what he needs to do to get reelected. (This argument usually masquerades behind the mantra of doing what's best for the "people of Montana.") But, unless the way to get ahead in Montana is to insist on overcharging Medicare patients by billions of dollars, the senator has been going far above and beyond the call of duty.
Baucus's second argument is that Democrats get substantively better legislation when he engages Republicans on their behalf. But this argument assumes the Bush administration has the votes to pass legislation without Democratic support. Often, it's Baucus who provides the margin of victory-- either with his own vote or by crafting pseudo-compromises that provide cover for a small number of Democratic defectors. Indeed, the Democrats' only real victory of the last five years--stuffing the administration on Social Security-- came after Harry Reid explicitly ordered Baucus not to negotiate with the White House.
Well, we'll do Reid one better and suggest he boot Baucus from the Finance Committee altogether. If we miss out on a few deals by not having Max Baucus at the table, that's a risk we're prepared to live with.