The easiest way to interpret the news this morning of the retirement of six-term Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D) is through the prism of the 2014 battle for control of the U.S. Senate and how it supposedly hurts Democrats' prospects for holding the chamber. But for those of us who have lived in Montana and worked in Montana politics, that cheap horse-race analysis is short-sighted for two reasons.
First and foremost, if my old boss and friend, the wildly popular former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), mounts a Democratic candidacy it means the seat would likely remain in the party's hands. Additionally, and more important for the long-term topography of American politics, Baucus is not just a single Democrat holding a Senate seat in a Republican-leaning state. He is one of the politicians most responsible for the Democratic Party's destructive long-term shift to the right on economic issues. That means his retirement isn't just a 2014 story or a Montana story; it is significant to the whole country.
Remember, Baucus is not any old senator holding an office and casting terrible votes on social issues like guns. He is, more important, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. As the panel that oversees every major economic issue from healthcare to Social Security to taxes to trade, the committee is the most powerful body in the United States Congress. That means despite being relatively unknown outside of the Beltway and Montana, Baucus is one of the most powerful politicians in the world.
Unfortunately, in the last decade Baucus has used that power in terribly destructive ways. For instance, he has used it to sculpt what became President George W. Bush's deficit-ballooning tax cuts; riddle the tax code with corporate tax giveaways; eliminate a public option from healthcare legislation; and champion job-destroying "free" trade deals. Just as destructive as what he has done as chairman is what he has prevented: On behalf of his biggest campaign donors he has, for instance, watered down drug reimportation legislation; "limit(ed) the drug industry’s 10-year financial exposure under healthcare reform," according to the Hill newspaper; blocked a serious consideration of legislation to close corporate tax loopholes, and, as the Missoula Independent notes, "refused to allow any discussion of universal or single-payer health care, instead kowtowing to his donors."
These are just some of the big things. Baucus has also been the reliable engineer of smaller but equally destructive rip-offs -- most recently, a half-billion-dollar pay-to-play giveaway to a pharmaceutical company in exchange for campaign contributions.
Last week, the New York Times published a report on how Baucus' Senate office has been Washington, D.C.'s unofficial jumping-off point for a lucrative career in corporate lobbying. The story reported on an open secret: Basically, if you want to become a millionaire influence peddler in the Beltway, you just get a job in Baucus' office and then after a few years market yourself to a lobbying firm as someone who can influence him. Once in the lobbying job, all you have to do to influence Baucus for your clients is leverage your personal connection to his network and fork over big campaign contributions to his campaign.
The Times breathlessly presented its story as some sort of major revelation -- and though it's great that the paper published the report, it was anything but a revelation for those of us with roots in Montana politics. On the contrary, anyone who has paid attention to Baucus knows that Baucus-ism is really just naked institutionalized corruption. Back home in places like Missoula and Billings, Baucus presents it all as anti-ideological pragmatism -- but he has no ideology in the same way corporations with business before his committee has no ideology beyond making money.
Because of all this, Baucus' retirement could represent a tectonic shift in the power dynamics that run the Senate Democratic Caucus in specific, and the Democratic Party in general. Baucus, you see, isn't just Max Baucus; he represents the hopes, dreams, connections, investments and corruptions of a corporate monster whose tentacles reach every corner of the party and, no doubt, American politics as a whole. That monster, composed of lobbyists, CEOs, corporate consultants, campaign operatives, fundraisers and Hill staffers, relies on Baucus not just being in the Senate, but being the Senate Finance Committee chairman in specific. Baucus' decision to leave is a decision to behead the monster.
The bad news, of course, is that Baucus will be a lame-duck chairman for the next year and a half, meaning that on economic issues, he will feel even more free to ignore what his Montana voters want than he usually does. That's particularly problematic with Wall Street-backed proposals to cut Social Security now headed to his committee. It's not hard to imagine that after helping so many of his staffers become K Street millionaires, Baucus himself wants a post-retirement payoff for himself -- and he knows the best way to engineer that is to pass some big giveaways to potential corporate lobbying clients on his way out the door.
That said, the obvious good news is that this presents an opportunity for a long-term change. A chairperson more in touch with the rank-and-file priorities of Democratic voters could use the committee's power in much less corrupt, much more productive ways. Additionally, in beheading the monster and momentarily scrambling the so-called Iron Triangle of money, political contributions and votes that support longtime committee chairmen, Baucus' retirement creates a momentary political vacuum for progressive organizations. It is a moment they can try to leverage both in decisions about who is the next chairman and in decisions about the economic direction of the Democratic Party.
Of course, it's a good bet K Street is already mobilizing to try to preserve Baucus-ism in a different form, but now is a unique opportunity to start ending it for good.