If 2008 was the year of the Western gunslinger showdowns—Hillary vs. Obama, Obama vs. McCain, McCain vs. Palin—the past twelve months have been most notable for never-ending docudramas. However important they may be, the size of the stimulus package, the fate of the public option, or the implications of another surge aren’t exactly the stuff of star vehicles. Instead, these Made-for-Cable-TV dramas have given veteran character actors their moment in the haze. It has indeed been the hour(s) of a Ned, rather than Warren, Beatty. And in 2009, no not-quite star shone as dimly as that of the senior senator from Montana, who reliably portrayed a man fighting the popular will in order to serve the many private interests who support him. For uniquely embodying the Democratic Party’s dilemmas, Max Baucus is the Brooklyn Rail’s 2009 Player of the Year.
Some might call the Senate Finance Committee the board of directors of American politics, and if so, those same some would then consider Baucus the chairman of the board. His surname suggests much, in that it seems to combine “balk” and “caucus”—and getting in the way is definitely his stock in trade. Under Baucus’ careful eye, the public option came into the Finance Committee like a lion and went out just plain lame. His many future biographers can explain the origins of Baucus’ middle name, Sieben, or German for the number seven. Luck and good fortune have certainly come his way, though. A member of the upper house for thirty-one years, Baucus, as The Nation’s Ari Berman presciently wrote in 2007, has “managed to rise in the Senate simply by sticking around.”
Long before the winds of change shifted last fall, Baucus had already stood on solid ground with the health care industry. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, between 2003 and 2008, he raked in a cool $4 million in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies, doctors and other health care interests, as well as more than $1 million from Wall Street. As the fate of the top Democrat and now Chair of the Senate Finance Committee reminds us, rank indeed has its privileges.
Baucus and then-candidate Obama formed close ties during 2008, with the latter hiring one of Baucus’ top aides, Jim Messina, to be his campaign’s chief of staff. Messina then became the Obama White House’s Deputy Chief of Staff. Once in office, Obama, Baucus and Messina recruited the support of the pharmaceutical industry for their health care bill by creating two groups, Americans for Stable Quality Care and Health Economy Now. Some would call phony grassroots groups “Astroturf,” whereas others might view them as paydirt. David Axelrod, the president’s senior advisor, would fall into the latter category, as the groups paid healthy sums to his media firm to create TV ads. Axelrod also counseled Senator Baucus on how to sell health care. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Baucus said Mr. Axelrod had offered suggestions on how to communicate, using ‘words that work’ and avoiding ‘words that don’t work.’”
We do not know what words Baucus deployed in his conversations with health care interests, nor do we know yet have record of President Obama’s conversations with the health care execs who streamed into the White House from February through June—a parade that brought Richard Umdenstock , president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, to see the grand marshal no less than seven times. Our president will no doubt write eloquently about such conversations in a future best-seller. What the chairman of the board said in his various dealings with these industry leaders just as surely stayed in the room.
After months of speculation in the blogosphere and by cable newsmakers, Baucus finally debuted his bill in mid-September. Despite clear popular support for it, the public option would not be included in the Baucus bill. And in mid-October, with fanfare heretofore unseen in the annals of American political media, that bill made it out of committee. Baucus and Obama celebrated the fact they had won over one Republican, Olympia Snowe of Maine, who would have not supported the bill if it included a public option, despite polls showing that 58% of Mainians favored it. Yet Baucus could claim to have it both ways, for as the Times soon summarized his position, he “supports a public plan but shepherded a health bill through the Finance Committee without it because he thought it could never win 60 votes.”
Still, the popular clamor for the public option was such that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that somewhat less-than-dashing leading man, brought the public option back into play only two weeks after the historic Finance Committee action. It was at this moment when Baucus provided his Oscar/Emmy nomination clip. Asked by the Times whether the Reid version “had changed his view of the public plan’s chances,” Baucus said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I just really don’t know.” In those simple statements, Baucus captured the dilemmas of representative democracy.
Like the health care debate, in November Baucus went back stage, from which he placed a post-election call to Michael Bloomberg congratulating him on his unimpressive victory. And as the curtain re-opened on the health care show in early December, Baucus’ off-stage antics—nominating his girlfriend for the position of U.S. attorney—brought him back into the spotlight. But his enduring role as the go-between between corporate America and the Senate means he will always have a part to play. And for showing how hopelessly compromised the Democratic Party really is, Mad Max is the Player of the Year.
Players of the Decade: Vote for One
a. Vice President Dick Cheney (U.S.)
b. President Hamid Karzai (Afghan.)
c. Senator Joe Lieberman (Conn.)
d. Former Governor Sarah Palin (Alaska)
Past Recipients of Player of the Year (formerly Person of the Year):
2005: Rep. John Murtha (Pa.)
2006: President Hugo Chavez (Ven.)
2007: Senator Larry Craig (Id.)
2008: Governor Sarah Palin (Alaska)