What happened to Baucus?

WHAT HAPPENED TO BAUCUS?…. Marcy Wheeler had a terrific item yesterday, summarizing a point that’s been circulating a bit: Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D) of Montana used to have a great health care plan.

On November 12, 2008, about a week after voters handed Barack Obama a sweeping national victory and congressional Democrats large majorities in both chambers, Baucus put together a White Paper on his vision of reform. The plan included a national health care exchange, a public option, new consumer protections, universal coverage, an individual mandate, a Medicare buy-in at 55, and subsidies up to 400% of the poverty line, among other progressive measures.

Marcy noted, “It’s like a journey through the looking glass, to a time when even a conservative Democrat would openly espouse doing what’s right to truly improve health care.”

That was Baucus in November, but let’s also not forget where Baucus was in April. At that point, he and Ted Kennedy co-signed a letter to the president, explaining that they’ve been “working together toward the shared goal of significant reforms to our health care system” for nearly a year, and they planned to “swift” action. Indeed, they saw smooth sailing ahead: “Our intention is for that legislation to be very similar, and to reflect a shared approach to reform, so that the measures that our two committees report can be quickly merged into a single bill for consideration on the Senate floor.”

So, what happened? Where’d this Max Baucus go? How did the Baucus of November and April (champion of a progressive, ambitious plan) become the Baucus of June and August (leader of the Gang of Six, opponent of the public option)? Ezra Klein explains the circumstances behind the switch.

Baucus pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch. That paper proved less his plan than his effort to articulate the Democratic consensus in such a way that Democrats were comfortable with him leading the debate. In particular, Kennedy had to be happy with that paper, because Kennedy was the threat to Baucus’s leadership.

But Kennedy’s illness took him out of the game. Baucus no longer needed to worry about Kennedy stealing the leadership of health-care reform away from him, which meant he stopped looking over his left shoulder. The effect was a bit like shutting down a primary challenge against Baucus: His surprising leftward lurch stopped entirely, and he drifted back to the more centrist approaches that had defined his career. It’s hard to say how the process would have differed if Baucus had spent his days worrying about keeping Kennedy onboard, but it seems possible that the practical impact would have been to keep Baucus closer to the paper he’d written to attract Kennedy’s support.

For all the recent talk from Republicans about Kennedy’s absence undermining bipartisanship — a cheap talking point, to be sure — the real consequence of Kennedy not being able to serve is the effect it had on Baucus, who quickly embraced “bipartisanship,” delayed the process, and continues to prefer to water down what was a strong proposal.