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The chronic compromiser
In 1972, Baucus, a few years removed from Stanford Law School and living in Missoula, considered a run for the Montana Legislature. As he weighed his options, he walked into the offices of the Missoulian and posed this question to a group of editors: Which party affiliation—Democrat or Republican—did they think would give him his best chance to win?
Sam Reynolds regulated editorial board policy at the time. He couldn't be reached for this story, but Reynolds told the Independent in 2004 that he didn't recall giving the young, confident Baucus definitive guidance. But, he said, "When he did announce as a Democrat for the Legislature I was surprised."
The anecdote serves to illustrate Baucus' long-displayed fence straddling, which has come to frustrate observers who claim Baucus swings like a weathervane to the political winds of the day.
Baucus was born in Helena and graduated from Helena High School in 1959. He graduated from Stanford University in 1964 and from Stanford Law School in 1967. In 1971, he bought a house and started a law practice in Missoula. In 1973, Missoula voters elected him to the state House. A year later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978. He's served in that role ever since, gathering seniority and influence—as well as criticism from befuddled Democrats who sometimes wonder if Baucus really represents the party's values.
For example, Baucus was so crucial to passing George W. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001 that he flanked the president when he signed the bill in the White House. Then, two years later—and after winning reelection in a state that voted for Bush over Al Gore by 25 percentage points—Baucus voted against Bush's 2003 tax cuts.
In 2002, Baucus voted for the war in Iraq. Then, in early 2007, he gave a speech on the Senate floor urging President Bush to bring the troops home. (His nephew Philip, a Marine corporal, died in Anbar province in July 2006.)
Baucus again pivoted in 2005, leading Senate Democrats in an effort to block Bush's push to privatize Social Security. That effort, says Sirota, "at least showed that he can be convinced to fight the good fight" and "leaves open the possibility that he can be convinced to not either try to split the difference or answer only to big money."
When lined up over time, Baucus' record explains why a 2007 profile in The Nation called him a "schizophrenic figure," and why a March profile in Time said he's "known mostly for his apostasies." But his inconsistencies are revealed most clearly, perhaps, on issues of health care.
In 2003, Baucus played a critical role—he was one of only two Democrats invited to the negotiating table—in helping Republicans pass a $400 billion, industry-friendly Medicare prescription-drug bill. The measure provided billions of dollars in subsidies to insurance companies and health maintenance organizations, and was considered the first step toward privatizing Medicare. Montana Democrats denounced Baucus for caving in to the Republican-led Congress. He acknowledged the bill was far from perfect, but argued that his involvement made it better, especially for rural Montanans.
Then, more recently, Baucus was the lead author and advocate of a bill to renew the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). It was twice vetoed by then-President Bush. President Obama finally signed it into law in February, providing health insurance for some 30,000 uninsured Montana children. Democrats roundly praised Baucus' effort.
"By working on legislation like (CHIP)," Baucus says when asked how he's prepared for health care reform, "you learn how to bring folks together to pass legislation that will help thousands of Montanans."
Baucus talks of other experiences that have prepared him for the health care reform effort. Growing up on a ranch, he says, he learned things like "common sense and hard work." Hitchhiking around the world taught him "that there is always a way to get to 'yes.'" He also cites the lessons of collaboration gleaned from his mentor, former Congressman Mike Mansfield, who served Montana in the House from 1943 to 1953, and in the Senate from 1953 to 1977, the last 16 of those years as senate majority leader. Mansfield, ironically, ushered the passage of Medicare, the program Baucus was complicit, critics say, in stripping down.
"It's funny," Baucus says, "I don't know if it would be more accurate to say I've prepared my entire career for health care reform, or if my entire career has prepared me for it. And to be quite frank, it could be my whole life that has prepared me for this moment."
As Baucus, the chronic compromiser, leads Democrats toward the party's most elusive goal, some say his approach is the only way to achieve it.