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Party pooper

Just what kind of Democrat is Max Baucus, anyway?

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Anyone who may have harbored doubts about U.S. Senator Max Baucus’ mental and physical toughness—and there are more than a few such in Montana these days—was more or less forced to amend those views by the end of Saturday, Nov. 22, 2003. That’s the day Baucus, a lifelong runner, ran the John F. Kennedy 50-mile road race in Maryland. Eight miles in, the 62-year-old veteran Democratic senator from Montana stumbled and fell and hit his head. Then he got back up and finished the final 42 miles of the race bleeding. Later, on Jan. 9, Baucus underwent successful brain surgery—relatively routine brain surgery, but still: brain surgery—to relieve pressure associated with a subdural hematoma thought to be a result of the fall.

In the meantime, he went back to work as one of the most powerful politicians in the country, wherein mental toughness, one can safely assume, is a necessary and much-cultivated trait.

Baucus was going to need it. His own party was about to call him everything short of traitor.

No one can doubt the man’s resolve. It’s his purpose people are beginning to question.

Leftish elements of the Democratic Party were already wary of Baucus over his votes for Clinton’s NAFTA and the first round of Bush tax cuts. In his 2002 re-election campaign against Mike Taylor, Baucus further enraged state Democrats by appearing in his television ads mugging with George W. Bush at the signing of the tax bill.

Then came Medicare.

As the ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Baucus held heavy pull in the ultimate November passage of the controversial Medicare bill, widely perceived as at best another in a string of demoralizing Democratic punts to Bush administration policy initiatives, and at worst a dereliction of Democratic duty.

Members of what might be described as the leftern wing of the Democratic Party see the Medicare bill as a cynical exploitation of desperate, old, sick people for the purpose of handing over the keys of the program to private industry, like much of the Bush agenda in various fields of governmental endeavor. Even much of the political center—Max Baucus included—admits it’s a flawed bill: It disallows the importation of cheaper Canadian drugs, and inexplicably prohibits the U.S. government from using its bulk buying power to negotiate lower prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Baucus now says he’d like to see those particulars changed—improve the bill as we go along. Besides, he says, he got good stuff in there for Montanans. And when push came to shove, it was that or no bill at all, a historic loss of an opportunity to put $400 billion at least nominally to work toward the country’s health.

That’s the way it was, say Baucus aides.

What would you have done?

Still, Baucus became a lightning rod for Democrats’ disgruntlement over that bill’s corporate-pork-giveaway provisions, and at the spectacle of a nationally prominent Democrat caving in to provide Republicans the edge in a tightly divided Senate.

After the bill’s passage, liberal Wall Street Journal columnist Albert R. Hunt placed the blame for the “fraudulent bill” squarely at the feet of Baucus, who, Hunt wrote, “first with the fiscally reckless tax cuts two years ago, and now with a deeply flawed Medicare bill, has greatly facilitated the 2004 agenda for George W. Bush and Republicans.”

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Baucus did so, Hunt claimed, because he is “a case study in legislative weakness.”

The evidence, Hunt wrote, is that Baucus bent to the Republican strong-arm tactic of disinviting party leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota to the negotiating table.

“If Max Baucus had said that’s unacceptable,” Hunt wrote, “Republicans would have faced a choice of relenting or killing a politically popular measure. Incredibly, Sen. Baucus caved.”

Hunt then quoted “constitutional scholar Thomas Mann” as saying that Baucus had “abdicated his institutional responsibilities.”

Hunt concluded that the senator’s pliability—some called it collusion—on a bill containing provisions he had recently deemed unacceptable “is generating serious buzz among his caucus colleagues that he be denied his senior position on the Finance Committee.”

Such action, Hunt noted, was almost unprecedented, and thus all the more pointed a threat to get in line.

A December editorial in The New Republic similarly called on Democratic leadership to consider removing Baucus from his senior position on the committee he had at one time chaired.

The American Prospect targeted Baucus next, in February, with a laundry list of “defections” to President Bush’s “signature initiatives.” Baucus, wrote author Matthew Yglesias, “had not only voted for many pieces of Republican-backed legislation but actually taken the lead in authoring much of the president’s domestic-policy agenda.”

Baucus was one of only two Democratic senators—the other being John Breaux of Louisiana—invited to negotiate the final compromise on the Medicare bill. The Prospect considered that affront to Democratic leadership the latest in “a long string of Republican provocations aimed at reducing the minority party to window-dressing status,” and charged Baucus with “lending this farce a veneer of bipartisan credibility” and “charting his own destructive course through a polarized nation at a time when the stakes have never been higher.”

By late February, Time magazine was reporting that Democrats were “ready to drink hemlock” after the Medicare bill’s passage.

Senate Minority Leader Daschle, the magazine reported, “plans to impose more party discipline. Democrats who supported the Republican Medicare bill, for example, will not be given seats on the Senate Finance Committee, which writes health-care legislation, when the next vacancies occur.”

It was a shot across the bow, a not very indirect threat to the senator from Montana, and it may have knocked him on his heels a bit.

But the most direct confrontation, and the one that may have stung most, came when the state Democratic Central Committee of Lewis and Clark County, the county of Baucus’ birth, voted several weeks after the bill’s passage to censure Baucus—a purely symbolic gesture, but meaningful at a grassroot level—over his vote. The L&C Committee also invited other state committees to follow its lead; Baucus sent his state Chief of Staff Jim Foley around Montana on the breakfast-meeting circuit to defend the bill to disaffected party faithful and ornery seniors.

The net effect of all the buzz is a growing fear that Baucus either is becoming or has finally become that most dreaded beast, a Republicrat: a liberal swung so far center that right looks like left to him. Or, more generously, a normal, maturing guy who came from wealth, leaned left in idealism (or opportunism) at the start, and has, with age, rededicated himself to money and the logical politics thereof.

The question state Democrats are asking is an awkward one: Has Baucus become, or is he in the process of becoming, a liability to his party, and by extension in the world of political influence, to his state and his constituency?

In other words: What kind of Democrat, exactly, is Max Baucus?

Weathervaning

Max Baucus was born in Helena and grew up in a reputedly Republican household on the Sieben family ranch north of Helena. He graduated from Helena High School in 1959, from Stanford University in 1964, and earned a law degree there in 1967. In 1971 he bought a house and hung his lawyer shingle in Missoula. Baucus then served as executive director and committee coordinator for Montana’s landmark 1972 Constitutional Convention, out of which came what was widely considered one of the most progressive state constitutions in the nation.

It would have been late 1972 then, or early 1973, that Baucus walked into the offices of the Missoulian and asked a group of editors, including Sam Reynolds, who regulated editorial board policy, a question. Young Max Baucus was considering a run for the state Legislature from Missoula. Which party affiliation, Republican or Democrat, he asked, did the editors think might offer his best opportunity and advantage? With whom did he have his best shot? To left-leaning and progressive Democrats, and innumerable non-partisans, the anecdote serves well to illustrate a Baucus they’ve come to know and be disappointed by: politically spineless; slightly mercenary in pursuit of self-interest; at the whim of demographic poll results; and interested, most excitedly, in the electibility of Max Baucus. Whichever way the wind blows, many disaffected observers (and former—and current—supporters) relate, is the direction you’ll find Max Baucus leaning.

Reynolds, now retired and living in Polson, says he didn’t think giving such advice was his job, and doesn’t recall offering the young aspirant any definitive guidance. But, Reynolds says, “When he did announce as a Democrat for the Legislature I was surprised.”

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Perhaps that’s because Reynolds remembers Missoula’s legislative delegation in those days as being dominated by Republicans.

But savvy political observers and even a few staunch detractors admit that it may not be that simple. It could, they admit, be more a matter of Baucus having simply been ahead of the game. When young Max Baucus asked Sam Reynolds which was the party for him, Reynolds may have underestimated the scope—if not the power-seeking aspect—of Baucus’ question. Montana’s federal delegation, as opposed to Missoula’s local contingent, was then dominated by the progressive leadership of Sens. Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf, by that point in their careers two icons of liberal power and influence.

Baucus may already have been thinking bigger than the confines of the local party.

In 1973, in any case, Baucus was elected as a Democratic state representative from Missoula to the Legislature in Helena. In 1974, he was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until being elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1978.

He’s been in the Senate ever since, collecting seniority, power, influence, and increasing criticism from within the party that elected him: Now that he’s got it, what is Max Baucus doing with all that power?

The silence of the lambs

“You have to understand that I’m 60 years old,” says Gene Fenderson, oft-quoted executive secretary of the Montana Progressive Labor Caucus, and the committee man who initiated the Lewis and Clark Central Committee’s censure of Baucus over the Medicare vote. “And I was with Max for many years. In fact the first time he ran against [former U.S. Congressman] Pat Williams, I was by Max’s side. In those days he was a young progressive liberal, and as time has gone on he has become more and more conservative in his views and in his actions.”

As to why, Fenderson suggests a combination of personal transformation and political expediency.

“Max runs on polls, OK? That’s my observation. And polls are showing the state is becoming more conservative. There’s no question about that. My thought is that one of the reasons it has become more conservative over the last eight to 10 years is not only because of the national trend, but because Max Baucus hasn’t stood up and led the charge against the conservative movement in this state when it was his responsibility to do that as a leading Democratic officeholder. And he should take some of the blame for that.”

At the same time, Fenderson says, “I just think Max has personally become very conservative. I think he’s been doing that a long time, and it’s finally accumulated where somebody finally said something, and people are now starting to talk about it more in the open. Most people, quite frankly, become more conservative as they get older in life, and I think Max has fallen right in with the mainstream. I think there’s been a philosophical change. I think the party here has got to address that sooner or later.”

And in fact there’s no shortage of Montana Democrats worrying over the impact of Baucus’ compromise-oriented leadership style. Most practicing Democrats contacted for this story kept their comments off the record. Others choose their words carefully.

Former Congressman Pat Williams, unofficial ideological standard-bearer for the state party, acknowledges that “Despite the fact that [Baucus] and I have been friends during those 30 years [of Baucus holding elective office], and despite the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time campaigning for Max and trying to help him, I’ve always found egregious the fact that during each of those years, Max has spent more time looking over his shoulder at the potential oncoming traffic than he has keeping his eyes straight ahead and aiming toward the future, and willing to take the necessary risks involved in that kind of outlook.”

Some suggest that the impact of Baucus’ leadership style on the state party, which has been mired in recent years in an identity crisis, has been one of muddying the waters. It can be difficult, after all, to distinguish and promote Democratic initiatives when your party’s top officeholder is providing aid and comfort (and in some cases the margin of victory) to a Republican agenda.

The seemingly obvious place to go for insight into Baucus’ impact on the Montana State Democratic Party is the Montana State Democratic Party. Oddly, nobody there wants to talk about it.

Party Chairman Bob Ream, it was finally made clear, would not be available for comment. Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Brian Schweitzer’s office, after several weeks of promising an interview, finally apologized at deadline and said Schweitzer would be unavailable. There are several possible reasons for the state party’s official silence on the matter of Baucus.

Hard feelings, for one. Three different sources confirm the widely unreported fact that after the 2002 elections, in which Baucus trounced Republican challenger Mike Taylor, Baucus launched a move to have Ream removed from the chairmanship of the state party and replaced with leadership more aligned with the Baucus machine. The move failed, some say due to Baucus’ underestimation of Ream’s popular support, but the power play can’t help but have left wounds. Neither Baucus’ office nor the state party responded to queries about the attempted coup.

The upcoming 2004 elections may also serve a role in encouraging the silence. Democrats hope to take advantage of Baucus’ apparent popularity and powerful patronage to finally regain an upper hand in the Montana Legislature. Party focus and unity is seen as key to that effort, and discussion of Baucus’ apparent “defections” is regarded as a distraction to be avoided at all costs.

Montana Wilderness Association’s Bob Decker, who became county commissioner of Lewis and Clark County the same year Max Baucus entered Congress, has a long history of observing and lobbying Baucus on environmental issues. He reads the tea leaves this way:

“You’ve got a pretty sick party, really, and one of the reasons is the person at the vanguard of that party, the top officeholder for the party, is without an agenda. I mean, quick: Talk about the agenda of the Republican Party. Cut taxes, liquidate natural resources on public lands, give more money to the wealthy and maintain the status quo of wealth and power in the country. Now go to the Montana Democrats and ask for their agenda. It’s a much tougher thing to characterize. And I think that’s because the person at the top of the party doesn’t carry an agenda…It’s a lack of leadership. It’s also a party that puts up with it and allows it to happen…And people are very impatient with it.”

Front burner

One impetus behind the increasing scrutiny of Baucus, in Montana at least, is the looming specter of the Bush energy bill, which may or may not come up for another Senate vote—having been defeated in an earlier version last year, despite a “yea” vote from Baucus—prior to the 2004 presidential election. Already freighted with the weight of public concern over which of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy business buddies helped write it, and feared on the left as a pork bonanza for extractive industry, the energy bill is viewed in Montana largely through the prism of what it might mean to the Rocky Mountain Front. Critics fear that the bill’s focus on domestic fuel production threatens to open the shakily protected Front—an emotional and in many cases sacred landscape to Montanans—to the depredations of oil and gas drilling.

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“With the energy bill, there’s simply no excuse for Baucus not to be a leader,” says the Montana Environmental Information Center’s Jim Jensen, who has followed Baucus’ career since 1976.

In fact, the energy bill, says the Wilderness Association’s Decker, “provides a pretty interesting snapshot of the overall questions about Baucus’ politics. Baucus has talked a good game about the Rocky Mountain Front, but he failed. Here’s a guy with 25 or more years, lots of seniority, ostensibly a great deal of power in the United States Senate, ostensibly one of the most powerful politicians in the country, and he proposes a very modest, frankly quite limited conservation-related element in the energy bill for the Rocky Mountain Front, and he can’t get it through. Or says he can’t. He doesn’t, in any event.” Baucus’ proposed amendment, voted down on strictly partisan lines, would have extended for three years a moratorium on drilling in the Front, which could otherwise be lifted at any time, and would have allowed leaseholders there to abandon those leases in exchange for drilling rights in less environmentally sensitive areas of Montana and the Gulf of Mexico. As the bill stands, it contains effectively toothless “study language” to “encourage” the same effect.

“The reason that the energy bill provides such a good picture of Senator Baucus is that he couldn’t walk the Front talk on his modest amendment,” Decker says. “We don’t get a very modest amendment for the Front, but what we do get is a big, broad national policy that threatens the Front and all public lands.”

Rocky Mountain Front Coalition founder and Vice-Chair of the Lewis and Clark Central Committee Paul Edwards seems almost resigned discussing Baucus’ role on the energy bill.

“I think Max really cares about the Rocky Mountain Front. Sadly, I think that he is not willing to risk a great deal in order to make a productive arrangement on saving the Front. He’s got opposition, you know. He’s got [Republican Sen. Conrad] Burns, who’s another 19th-century troglodyte, he’s got [Republican Rep. Dennis] Rehberg, who’s slightly to the right of Hermann Goehring on most things.”

If Montana environmentalists seem especially frustrated by Baucus, it’s at least partly because he is effectively their only potential ally. Burns and Rehberg both have ratings of zero [out of 100] from the League of Conservation Voters, a point of comparison by the light of which Baucus’ 42 seems stellar.

“This is a deeply rooted problem,” Decker thinks, “not just in the conservation community, but from a lot of different constituencies. There’s just a lot of frustration. The amount of energy that people have to put in on almost every issue with Sen. Baucus is just tremendous. And so people are always having to work, they have no champions for their causes, and it’s caused this ongoing question of [whether] he’s the best we’ve got and we’re going to stick with him, [or] throw the bum out, let’s suffer the consequences—at least we can die on our feet instead of living on our knees.”

In defense of independence

Baucus’ office bristles at criticism. A list of questions e-mailed to the senator’s spokesman, designed to generate responses particular to the issues being raised by conservationists and political observers around the state and the nation, drew first a complaint that the queries were “insulting.” After three weeks of attempting to elicit information from and access to Baucus, the senator’s office responded on the afternoon of an established Friday deadline with a flood of spin on the senator’s voting record, aide-arranged damage-control interviews and “background” attempts to marginalize potentially critical sources like former AFL-CIO Executive Director Don Judge (a Western District member of the Montana Democratic Central Committee Executive Board) and Gene Fenderson (the Lewis and Clark Committee man most vocally critical of Baucus).

A Friday visit for photos to the senator’s Missoula office provoked a defensive buttonholing from a Baucus aide who demanded to know to whom the Independent had already spoken and provided an on-the-fly list of sources more friendly to the senator’s positions. (We called several; two are quoted below.) Had the Independent addressed its questions to the state Democratic Party, the aide wanted to know. Yes, he was told, with perseverance, but the party had declined to comment. Try again, the aide insisted; the party will talk to you now. Another call was dutifully placed to state party media representative Patti Keebler, who asked for an e-mailed list of questions, which was promptly provided on Friday. Mid-day Tuesday, party chairman Bob Ream finally provided a statement calling Baucus “a strong partner,” “an important part of our strategic operations,” and “a significant force in helping us gain legislative seats in 2002.”

The defensiveness and delays did not seem like the tactics of a confident office, which seemed strange, considering that Baucus steamrolled to victory in his most recent campaign with over 60 percent of the vote, and that the senator is not up for re-election until 1998.

While Baucus declined to speak with the Independent directly, his aides defended his positions on the issues.

When Baucus voted for the first $1.3 trillion in cuts in 2000, aides explained, the country was looking at a several-trillion-dollar budget surplus. And within that tax cut, Baucus was instrumental in making the bill better for Montanans by working to double the child tax credit (Judy Smith, of Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development, described Baucus’ advocacy as “quite good”) and establish a 10 percent tax bracket for low-income wage-earners. When the Bush tax cuts of 2003 rolled around, Baucus finally voted against the bill, partly because he felt the country couldn’t then afford it, and partly because he felt it wouldn’t help small businesses.

On Medicare, Baucus aides say public disgruntlement stems from the bill’s complexity, and consequent misunderstanding of what the bill actually does. Rural health care provisions will deliver $115 million to Montana over the next 10 years, they say, and Baucus authored a provision that equalizes rural hospital reimbursement rates with those of the rest of the country, providing relief to struggling small-town health providers.

Additionally, aides said, 52,000 low-income Montana seniors will get “virtually dollar-for-dollar prescription drug coverage under this bill,” where before they had none.

“Is the bill perfect?” the aide asks. “No. Max has admitted that.” But because of Baucus, “it’s better.”

On a flanking front, the aide continues, “One of the things that Max is extremely proud of, that your readers should be proud of him for, is the fact that he has a 100 percent lifetime rating on his voting record from [pro-choice advocacy group] NARAL. His entire career, 100 percent pro-choice. And in a state like Montana, that is a very courageous thing to do, politically.”

But it’s on the environment, and especially the question of protections for the Rocky Mountain Front, that Baucus aides raise their hackles highest. Baucus, they want it known—as in fact is well known—has been a lifelong advocate of the Front. And, aides pointed out, his environmental record has Missoula roots as well. Tracy Stone-Manning, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, agrees.

“Just yesterday he voted the right way on the ‘polluter pays’ amendment. It did not pass, but it’s a tax on corporations and Max voted the right way. Which is incredibly helpful not only nationwide but here in Montana. Obviously for Libby, because Libby is an orphan site, where the Superfund is paying for that cleanup. And because the administration has let it go broke, not as much cleanup is going to happen as it should.”

Baucus was also, Stone-Manning notes, Montana’s first elected official to endorse the removal of Milltown Dam, and “even before he came out publicly, he helped us by setting up a meeting with British Petroleum officials which we simply never would have gotten if Max hadn’t asked for us.” Still, Stone-Manning’s kudos come with qualifications.

“Don’t get me wrong, he’s been a friend, [but] he can do way better…If you look at the spectrum in the West on how divisive the environment can be, we actually need real leaders out there bringing everybody else along. But it’s difficult when you’re in an environment of ideology. It’s a cultural war at some point, and we need real leaders to pull us out of that cultural war and bridge gaps and bring people together.” Has Max Baucus been that leader?

“Well, in that the gap is still there, no,” Stone-Manning says, even while acknowledging that it would be unfair to pin lack of resolution in the “cultural wars” on Max Baucus.

As for the energy bill and its potential to degrade the hallowed Rocky Mountain Front, Baucus aides simply beg to differ.

Baucus, they say, helped write a tax incentive package to help increase domestic production of energy, promote conservation, and boost alternative sources like wind, solar, biomass, and ethanol.

“I think that there’s a lot of misunderstandings about that bill,” says the aide. “There’s nothing in this energy bill that says ‘go drill on the Rocky Mountain Front.’ Max disagrees with the people who are opposing this energy bill. He thinks it’s important for jobs in Montana, and he thinks it’s important to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy, and he thinks it’s important in providing Montana homes and businesses with reliable, affordable power.”

As for apprehensive environmentalists, says the aide: “They say ‘we don’t like the bill’ and we say ‘why’ and nobody can tell us.”

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(To which the Front Foundation’s Paul Edwards might beg to differ: “The Rocky Mountain Front represents the top 1 percent of wildlife habitat left in the United States. It is a great portion of the last of the truly wild and natural land that we have left. And if they go in there for gas and oil, and if they build their roads and their cracker plants and their sweetening plants and all the rest of the infrastructure that goes with it, we will have lost a big chunk of what’s left of truly wild America, and that will be a tragedy that we can never, ever rescind. So that’s what it is, and this energy bill aims exactly at doing that.”)

To the charge that Baucus’ aisle-hopping muddies the waters of Democratic identity in a state party begging for leadership, Baucus’ 2002 campaign manager Jim Messina points out that after the senator’s 2002 race, which effectively ended early after state Sen. Mike Taylor’s withdrawal, Baucus placed his campaign staff at the disposal of a number of Democratic state legislative candidates.

“There’s no one in Montana who’s done more for Democratic legislative candidates than Max Baucus, ever,” Messina claims, noting that Baucus contributed “everything in his power to elect Montana Democrats across the ticket,” including walking door to door with candidates and staying up until four in the morning cutting radio ads in a Havre hotel.

As a result, Messina says, Democrats picked up seven seats in the 2002 legislative races—the second largest Democratic advance of any state nationwide.

Baucus, Messina says, “understands that this is a ticket and a party, not just his election.”

Regarding the prospect of strained relations in the national caucus, Messina, who now works as chief of staff for North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, says, “My boss is chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, which is the policy arm of the Senate, and I can tell you that we very clearly understand that Max Baucus is an independent U.S. senator who does what he thinks is right for Montana, and he’s been that way for a long time. And he has risen to positions of high honor, and is the ranking Democrat and the former chairman of what some would argue is the most powerful committee in the Senate. So I think that no one that I know of is out there trying to punish Max Baucus. We understand who he is and what state he represents and what he believes in.”

Peer review To any disgruntled Democrats worried that the net effect of Baucus’ recent votes amounts to a defection to the Republican dark side, U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns offers a hearty chuckle.

“Well, I can say to that faction of the Democratic party, they have nothing to fear…We all have those detractors, but that’s the reason that they send you up here. You’re supposed to be able to think a little bit.”

Baucus crossed the aisle again earlier this month, joining Burns and a bloc of Republicans in voting for the president’s 2005 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs—a budget that Edward S. Banas Sr., commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called “a disgrace and a sham.”

“There are times that there are state interests,” Burns explains, “and there’s self-interest and there’s political interests and there’s national interests. And you have to balance those. You don’t have to deal away your principles, you know, but after all this is a debate society here in the U.S. Senate, and there are times when you have taken your cause as far as you can possibly take it and still gather 51 votes, or 60 votes in some cases. And then if you don’t think you can advance your party’s interest any further, then you have to make a decision: Do I cut the deal and get what I have gotten and then abandon the rest, or do you completely abandon the whole idea?”

Baucus is, his aides agree, “in this national role, and it’s not always easy. The reason he gets shot at by national reporters and others is because he’s in a leadership position and he’s doing something, he’s trying to make things better for people. That’s why he gets scrutinized.” John Driscoll, a self-described “solid Democrat” who served as Baucus’ first campaign manger in 1973 and later ran in two failed primaries against his former employee before becoming speaker of the Montana House and chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission, concedes that Baucus is “a superb political operator,” and that what might look like brazen concessions to a Republican agenda, or even a personal shift of political philosophy, may, in the end, be no such thing.

“He may be way ahead of us. He may be losing a few on the surface to gain more important things down the road.”

That line of thinking would certainly jibe with Baucus’ own stated approach to the dilemmas and necessities of political life, which can be summed up, and often is, and left at that, by the phrase “getting things done.”

In a short, typed statement forwarded by the senator’s office, Baucus wrote, in whole:

“Growing up on a ranch outside of Helena, I learned at an early age the values of hard work and doing what’s right. Throughout my career I’ve carried those values to work with me every day.

“To me, leadership is about doing what you think is right and standing up for what you believe in. That’s not always easy or popular. But that’s what I do and I’m proud of my record of being effective for Montanans in the U.S. Senate.

“I’m a Democrat. But I’m a Montanan and an American first. Party labels and partisanship always come in second. Montanans are tired of the bickering and partisanship—that’s why I work together to get things done to make people’s lives better. My one and only yard stick is doing what’s right for Montana. The sign on my desk says it all: Montana comes first.”

But behind all the easy lauding of the virtues of hard work and the slippery abstractions about what’s best for “Montana,” there’s still no acknowledgement of the fact that there are, by now, at least two constituencies in Montana. There’s the progressive legacy of the 1972 Democratic Convention, and the now-established Republican influx that has sought since to dismantle it. Only one of them has elevated Baucus to his present position of power to “get things done.”

The fabled sign on Baucus’ desk, in the end, and especially lately, doesn’t say it all. It doesn’t say whose Montana comes first.

If there’s still a difference between the goals of the Republican and Democratic Parties, the distinction matters. And it’s a distinction on which Montanans—not just party purists and Beltway editorialists—are desperately seeking clarity. Sen. Baucus has four years to come up with a convincing answer.

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