Power Broker 

Is Sen. Max Baucus the sellout the left portrays, or the savvy centrist poised to finally reform American health care?

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Definition of leadership

Last week, in an effort to change a few moderate minds amid partisan wrangling, and to assure the country that health care reform remained on track, President Obama delivered a speech in the East Room of the White House. He made clear the stakes of the health care debate.

"This debate is not a game for these Americans [without, or with inadequate, health insurance], and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer," he said. "They are counting on us to get this done. They are looking to us for leadership. And we must not let them down. We will pass reform that lowers cost, promotes choice, and provides coverage that every American can count on. And we will do it this year."

The president implicitly dropped the millstone squarely on Baucus, pressuring his committee to come through—soon—with a bill that moderate Democrats and maybe a Republican or two will support. No one doubts that Baucus is putting in the necessary work to accomplish it. In fact, observers say that he thrives in the difficulties posed by these complicated negotiations, that he's a "glutton for punishment," that bloodying his face during a marathon and then continuing to run reveals the nature of his work ethic. But there's a distinction to be made, some say, between what Baucus brings to the table and what the situation calls for—namely, leadership.

"I think we've reached a juncture, probably in history, where there's a difference between hard work and leadership," says Dave McAlpin, a member of the Montana House of Representatives who worked on Baucus' re-election campaign in 1990 and in his Bozeman office from 1992 to 1995. "Mike Mansfield passed historic legislation because of his leadership ability. And Max needs to exhibit that he can bring this issue to the fore and get a good bill passed to solve an enormous problem—probably the biggest policy problem and issue of our time—through leadership, not just hard work. I think it's too soon to tell whether Max will be successful."

For McAlpin, and most Democrats, the measure of success would be the inclusion of a public insurance option to compete with private insurers. For most Republicans, the demarcation line appears to be its exclusion. Baucus, characteristically, straddles that line.

"Every option is on the table," he tells the Independent when asked if he's committed to the public option, "and I'm looking at every way possible to get a bill that achieves my goals for reform. The bottom line is that I'm committed to passing a bill that provides access to quality, affordable health care to every American. I'm committed to reforming the system to allow folks with preexisting conditions to get the coverage they need, while allowing folks who like their coverage to keep what they have."

The two views of Baucus—the sellout or the savvy centrist—point to at least two predictions of how this historic debate will end. If his critics are right, any bill that passes will be so watered down and industry-friendly in the name of bipartisanship that it might as well have failed. If his defenders are right, any bill he hammers out—even if it lacks a public option—will be the most progressive health care reform in decades, and, in David Kendall's words, "we'll look back on this and see just how critical his leadership was."

The rub is that both sides will probably stick their label on Baucus anyway. We won't know, in trading away the perfect for the good, how much better the bill could have been. His deal-making rap, for better or worse, will remain. And the legacy of health care reform will almost certainly belong to someone else. "That's frankly unfortunate for Max," says former Congressman Williams, "but that's where it is."

There is one other option: Baucus can claim his own legacy, not by again stepping toward the middle, but by stepping forward.

"It's a historic moment for Max, not in Montana, but nationally," McAlpin says. "If he wants to be remembered like Mansfield and [former Montana Congressman Lee] Metcalf, he needs to provide the leadership to solve this problem. He was elected to choose how to solve this problem...The clock is ticking."

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