Before shipping off to China as U.S. ambassador in 2013, Max Baucus's last major accomplishment of a nearly 40-year career in the U.S. Senate was shepherding health care reform, later known as Obamacare, to passage.
Granted, progressives aren't apt to exalt Baucus' health care legacy. To them, he's the man responsible for keeping single-payer, i.e., government-run, health care off the table at a time when Democrats controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress. "Let me get this straight," one protester interrupted during an early Senate Finance Committee roundtable in 2009. "You've got 15 seats at the table and not one for single payer?" Baucus pounded his gavel and had the self-described "Baucus 8" arrested.
Eight years later, Baucus's baby has survived an insurgent single-payer evangelist in Bernie Sanders and an onslaught by the zombie horde of "Repeal and Replace" conservatives in Congress.
But Baucus isn't celebrating.
"My personal view is we've got to start looking at single-payer," Baucus said Sept. 7 at Montana State University, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported. "I think we should have hearings.... We're getting there. It's going to happen."
Cue the collective spit take. "Hearings?!" Someone page Baucus circa 2009 and have this guy arrested!
Did Baucus go to China and come back a commie? A slew of prominent Democrats, with the 2018 midterms in the party's sights, have come out in support of single payer. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker will co-sponsor Sanders' "Medicare-for-all" bill in the Senate, and even Jon Tester now says single payer deserves a "solid look."
Still, calls for a "solid look" and "hearings" are a far cry from endorsements. While pandering to the party base is a time-honored midterm strategy, Tester in particular faces a tough reelection campaign in 2018 in a state where "repeal and replace" tends to roll off the tongue.
This could be lip service as Democrats try to keep their progressive base at bay. Or it could signal that the moderates are finally coming around. Recall that, in 2009, then-president Barack Obama held a health care town hall in Belgrade. He was introduced by Baucus, who listed some moderate reforms, and by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who extolled the universal health care offered by Montana's northern neighbor Canada. The audience of 1,300 reportedly "roared in approval" for one of those speeches. You can bet Baucus remembers whose speech it was.