Matt Miller - The Archives

Baucus retires, a grateful nation cheers
The Washington Post, April 24, 2013

With one glorious stroke Max Baucus has made it possible for two of America's more interesting politicians to play bigger roles on the national stage. Not to be churlish, but I'll take Ron Wyden and Brian Schweitzer over a dozen Max Baucii any day. Never has a politician done so much to lift the prospects of the republic simply by saying goodbye.

Is there a soul outside Montana who is mourning Baucus's decision not to run for a seventh term? Baucus helped George W. Bush pass his big tax cuts in 2001, making him an accomplice in the biggest fiscal mistake of this generation, squandering the hard-won surpluses that Bill Clinton (with Newt Gingrich's help) had bequeathed.

Then weeks ago, Baucus kept a bad thing going by voting against the new budget crafted by Senate Democrats, saying it raised too much revenue (even though its taxes wouldn't suffice to cover what Ronald Reagan spent as a share of the economy decades ago). When talk turns to tax reform, Baucus, again, has repeatedly refused to concede that when the dust clears from any "simplification" or "base broadening," revenue has to rise in an aging America. This is the fantasy of math and demography that Republicans persist in embracing.

"His guiding principle has been to get reelected," says one former Senate staffer, "not to lead and to educate."

The Montana senator was the delayer-in-chief on President Obama's health reform, persuading the White House to let crucial time pass in 2009 while he tried and failed to secure Republican Chuck Grassley's support. Baucus's pussyfooting gave the GOP an opening to demagogue Obamacare and move public sentiment against it. Baucus isn't to blame for the White House's communications failures, but his ineffectual delay helped inflict scars on Obama's signature initiative that have never healed.

These are just the most depressing Baucus "accomplishments" that come to mind. A fuller indictment would toss in Baucus's opposition to the Dream Act and his vote against universal background checks for guns just the other day, even though Baucus surely knew he was about to step aside. A profile in courage Max ain't.

But those who stand to gain by his departure are much more promising.

Start with Wyden, the Oregon policy wonk who's next in line to chair the Senate Finance Committee (his Democratic elder, Jay Rockefeller, has already announced he's not running again). I'll confess a bias here. In general, when I'm thinking through a thorny public-policy challenge, my first instinct is to ask what Singapore would do (I know, that's another column—which I've actually written here and here). But my second instinct is often to wonder what Ron Wyden would do.

On health care, for example, Wyden is virtually the only politician who bangs the table about the obvious need to move beyond our archaic employer-based health-care system (something the president chose to ignore). He fashioned a bipartisan bill with then-Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah to do just that, and it garnered more bipartisan support than any other plan in 2009's toxic debate.

Wyden-Bennett offered an economically rational approach to universal coverage that blended progressive goals with business realities and a search for common ground. And I don't mean consensus in the usual Beltway, symbolic, puny "step forward" spirit, but consensus that would have produced major progress. Wyden-Bennett was almost a platonic ideal of wonky bipartisan policy development, a rare thing for any senator not named Moynihan or Bradley to spearhead.

But that's Wyden's modus operandi. He looks for big problems to tackle in ways that honor both parties' values. He took a similarly ambitious approach to tax reform (the blueprint he crafted with Judd Gregg in 2010 and reissued later with Dan Coats will surely be resurrected if Wyden gets the nod). On Medicare he incurred his party's wrath by penning a compromise conceptual plan with Rep. Paul Ryan that pried little-noted concessions from Ryan on coverage and spending growth.

In his last election, Wyden even boasted campaign co-chairs from both political parties in every county in Oregon. Indeed, the only "trouble" with Wyden is that he may be too interested in bipartisan problem-solving in a Congress consumed with jockeying for partisan advantage.

Brian Schweitzer, Montana's popular governor from 2005 to January of this year, would bring fresh spice and perspective to the Senate. He's not just another lawyer or heir or wealthy businessman. Schweitzer earned degrees in international agronomy and soil science before working on irrigation projects on five continents. He worked for years in Saudi Arabia and Libya, and speaks Arabic. His outsized personality and homespun style make him accessible—and formidable.

"I'm the kind of guy that, when I see a broke-down pickup, I'll get out with my tools and try to fix it," Schweitzer told the Hill Tuesday. "And I can tell you looking at Washington, D.C., from Montana, there is no bigger broke-down pickup than the Senate in Washington, D.C.,"

Sounds like the man's running. We'll know in a few weeks.

So thank you, Max Baucus. I'm sure Montanans have reason to appreciate your decades of service. But the rest of can be forgiven for concluding that you're serving America best by finally retiring to that dream house near Bozeman.