Baucus: ‘Sleeper of the Senate’

By Beacon Staff

Max Baucus is a somewhat inscrutable member of Montana’ federal delegation. Despite his decades in Washington, D.C., dwarfing the tenure of his colleagues, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg and fellow Democrat and freshman Sen. Jon Tester, it’s a little bit tougher to understand what makes Baucus tick. The fact that Baucus didn’t face a semblance of a test in his re-election this year, certainly didn’t force him – through debates or tough interviews – to speak in depth about his political views entering this new term. But I would venture to say Ezra Klein’s profile of Baucus, “The Sleeper of the Senate,” in The American Prospect, however, goes a long way toward describing how Baucus’ congressional experience shapes his governing philosophy. The story also paints a portrait of the Senate Finance Committee, which Baucus chairs, as one where partisanship, by necessity, often has to take a backseat to pragmatism. And it delineates between Baucus’ long moderate history in the Senate, surviving from Montana’s progressive 1970s through the 1980s when he was the sole Democrat serving in higher office for many years to his time now, enjoying a resurgence of Democratic elected officials here.

“Baucus is not known as tough. In fact, he’s generally been understood as scared — a senator paralyzed by an acute awareness of his own political mortality. Montana has voted for the Republican candidate in nine of the last 10 presidential elections. In 2000, Bush took the state by 25 points. For much of that time, Baucus was the only Democrat elected statewide. Survival was rarely assured, and so he has developed a political style suited to appeasing a skeptical electorate with a conservative bent.

“His appetite for pork — and his skill at wresting it for his state — is so legendary that The Washington Post branded him a “High Plains grifter.” As one former Baucus staffer put it to me, ‘He’s like the city councilman for the state of Montana.’ And, he’s well known for his tendency to break with the Democratic Party. In 2001, he was so instrumental in passing Bush’s tax cut that he stood behind the president at the bill-signing ceremony, a visual that featured prominently in his 2002 campaign ads. (In 2003, however, Baucus voted against the second round of tax cuts.) He voted to repeal the estate tax and earned a 70 percent approval rating from the Chamber of Commerce.”