Thursday, July 30, 2009

Max Baucus, Point Man

The focal point of the health care debate is focused on the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Sen Max Baucus(D-MT).  After reading a couple of profiles of Senator Baucus, I have thought about him and the process, and this my guess as to why we are where we are in the debate.

Senator Baucus has made a career of straddling the middle.  He supported the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War.  When the Republican passed the Medicare drug bill the only two Democrats allowed into the room during negotiations were Sen. Baucus and another moderate Democrat Sen. John Bruex(D-La).  However, Baucus led the way when congressional Democrats successfully fought Bush's plans for Social Security.

As I look at this record my sense is Baucus is a conservative in the traditional sense.  He doesn't want radical change but he will fight tooth and nail to protect what already exists.  The questions then are does health care reform require radical reform, and is the electorate calling for change?

The article from the Missoula Montana paper quotes a former Baucus aide saying, "I think we've reached a juncture, probably in history, where there's a difference between hard work and leadership.  And Max needs to show that... he can get a good bill passed through leadership, not just hard work.  If he wants to be remembered he needs to provide the leadership to solve this problem."

I 'm not sure that a person whose instincts are conservative can bring the required leadership for health care reform.  Even though the proposal is not very radical because it still keeps the anachronistic employee based health system, it still contains the seed to grow into a radical change of our health care system.  Baucus either cannot see this or wants to bring reform reform through tweeking the current system.  

However, the path of the current system is unsustainable.  More people will become uninsured and more insured people will be risking bankruptcy if they should have a major medical need.  Businesses will offer health insurance that covers less and less and continue to provide stagnant wages because health benefits eat the compensation packages.  The current proposals are a compromise from progressives desires for a single payer.  The current proposals do provide a way for more progressive options to be visited at a later date.  

Baucus' instinctual conservative view means he sees tweaking the current system is the answer, which would make harder to grow his plan in more progressive direction  and one day might require a more extensive overhaul.  Also, Sen. Baucus's conservative political instincts means he is misreading the political winds.  He cam of age in a era of Republican ascendency but is in an era of Democratic ascendency.  His sidelining of the more liberal members of committee means he risks losing big and bring the whole package down.  Chairman Baucus even locked the chair of the Health sub-committee Sen Jay Rockefeller out of the negotiations. 

Baucus' method of leading a group of centrist Democrats and Republicans means he misread the situation.  He should have led negotiations beteen more liberal Democrats and centrist Democrats to get a bill that could be supported by every Democrat in his committee.    He negotiated with those he didn't need to and left out those whose votes count.  A gentlemanly move but one that fails basic leadership.  He has attempted to lead those who he cannot and ignored those who could help him.

However, it is not too late.  The big thing now is to get the bill out of committee and onto the floor.  The other bill from the Senate HELP committee and the House bills are substantially more progressive.  Baucus can show real leadership by help combining the two bills and being willing to support the final product if it is more liberal than his original bill.  He can also show leadership by siding with his Democratic colleagues against any filibuster attempt and leading the centrist Democrats to siding with the party on the procedural votes even if some of them vote against the final legislation.  It will mean that Baucus will need to go against his every political instinct.  I realize that is hard but real leadership means being able set aside your instincts on those rare occasions when real and lasting positive change can happen.

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