Barack Obama received 67 million votes in the last election. Senator Max Baucus of Montana received 349,000 votes when he ran for re-election last year. His Republican counterpart on the Senate Finance Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, got just over a million votes when he last ran in ’04.
So how, exactly, was Obama’s landslide victory a mandate for Baucus and Grassley to hijack the president’s agenda? When it comes to healthcare reform, trusting Baucus was the first mistake Obama made. Allowing Baucus to cede so much authority to Grassley is the second.
When Baucus became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee after Democrats recaptured Congress, many Democrats were justifiably worried. After all, Baucus helped shepherd through Congress two of President Bush’s signature initiatives, his tax cuts and Medicare privatization plan. He received a ton of money from corporate lobbyists, many of whom were former staffers of his. In a Nation profile in early ’07, I dubbed him "K Street’s Favorite Democrat."
Baucus’ staff went to great lengths to convince me that he really was a progressive at heart. Just look at how he fought Bush’s privatization of Social Security, even when the president came to Montana! Ok, but one relatively modesty stand does not erase a career of compromise and capitulation. Matt Yglesias came up with a fitting nickname for the Montana Senator: Bad Max.
Yet as Democrats solidified their control of Congress and Obama cruised to the White House, Baucus tried to convince his Democratic colleagues that they had nothing to worry about with him at the helm of such an important committee with jurisdiction over crucial financial matters. He endorsed Obama during the primary and Obama tapped Baucus’ top aide, Jim Messina, as his chief of staff for the general election and deputy chief of staff in the White House. The hiring of Messina should’ve set off alarm bells among progressives, signaling that Baucus now had an influential booster in the president’s inner circle.
"Max Baucus could prove a progressive legislative giant," Ezra Klein wrote just after the election. "Or he could be Bad Max." The latter, unfortunately, is what we’ve seen of late. Was "Good Max" always a facade?