Christmas came early for political pundits the world over when, on Dec. 18, reports surfaced that President Barack Obama would nominate Max Baucus, Montana's senior Democratic senator, as ambassador to China. Two days later, Obama made the formal announcement, emphasizing the senator's two decades of work on trade agreements as making him "perfectly suited" for the job.
The announcement marked the second Baucus bombshell in eight months. In April, he said he would "serve out my term, and then it will be time to go home to Montana." We should've known that Baucus wouldn't go quietly into retirement. But as Republicans and Democrats alike scrambled to run for his seat, most assumed Baucus would make his last bits of noise hammering out a revised tax code, fixing the Affordable Care Act, saving the Rocky Mountain Front, lauding Montana's craft breweries or otherwise cementing his domestic legacy. Now he's off to Beijing, where the beer is weak and the stakes are high.
Those political pundits, meanwhile, are tripping over themselves trying to piece together how this move came about, what it means for the 2014 Senate race, how Gov. Steve Bullock will fill the interim position and, long-term, how Baucus will fare as an envoy to a country with the world's second-largest economy. Was this a Hail Mary move to give Democrats a head start against Republican frontrunner Steve Daines in the Senate race? What will become of Baucus' unfinished business in the Senate, which he said was so important that he didn't want the distraction of running a campaign? And why did Obama tap Baucus anyway?
The senator certainly has his domestic critics, but foreign policy wonks may dislike him even more. Some doubt his readiness for the position, considering the previous ambassador spoke Mandarin and the current one is Chinese-American. Also, that trade history Obama pointed to is cause for concern, according to Peter Navarro, director of the documentary Death by China. In a Huffington Post column, Navarro called Baucus "absolutely [the] worst choice" for, among other reasons, helping "the multinational companies that have off-shored our jobs to China."
As the questions hang out there, and the debate continues over the merits of Obama's nomination, Montanans are left in a position with which we've become accustomed: waiting to see how Baucus' curious, far-reaching influence trickles down to us. He may be retiring as our senator, but he's not yet done wielding his power.