It is no secret that Congress and the people who serve in it are unpopular these days, but here is a sign of how bad things have gotten: If I refer to a retiring senator as a “professional politician,” you will most likely assume that I mean this as an insult.
I met Max Baucus in the fall of 1974. I had just arrived at the University of Montana a few weeks earlier, and I signed up for my first journalism course, a survey of mass media and public affairs. The instructor, Ann Geracimos, was likewise a recent arrival in the state, and she was very impressed with Baucus, the young Missoula lawyer.
Baucus came from one of Montana’s most prominent ranching families. He obtained undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford in the 1960s and worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington for three years before returning to Montana, where he served as executive director for the statewide constitutional convention that drafted a charter - a model of progressive legislation for its time - in 1972. He then won a seat in the state House of Representatives.
By the fall of ’74, Baucus wanted to go back to Washington. He was running for the U.S. House seat from the western half of Montana, one of two representative positions at the time. (The state’s shrinking share of the national population has since left it with a single House member.) He and his fellow Democrats promised to clean up Washington in the wake of the Watergate scandals, which dominated the front pages that fall after President Gerald Ford pardoned his recently departed predecessor for any and all crimes Nixon may have committed while in the White House.
Geracimos thought her students would surely admire Baucus as much as she did. Most of my classmates who voted in Montana that year probably did support “Max,” as everyone in Montana called him. I did not, but only because I was just 16 that fall and too young to vote. We students liked Baucus well enough, but not quite as much as Geracimos, who married him soon after. (They have since divorced.)
Baucus went to the House that year as part of a national Democratic landslide. For all practical purposes, he never came back. In 1978 the state’s long-serving Democratic senator, Lee Metcalf, died. Baucus wanted the seat, but he did not have a warm relationship with the governor at the time, fellow Democrat Tom Judge. Judge instead appointed Paul Hatfield, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Undeterred, Baucus defeated Hatfield in a primary and went on to win the general election in November, which I helped cover as a fledgling reporter for The Associated Press. In the comparatively gracious spirit of Montana politics, Hatfield resigned his seat a few weeks early, allowing Judge to appoint Baucus and thus gain a few weeks’ precious seniority in the Senate hierarchy.
Baucus put the head start to good use. He steadily climbed the ranks to become chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax legislation. Though Montana tilted more toward the Republicans over the years, Baucus never really faced a close election except in 1996, when he narrowly defeated Dennis Rehberg, who later won the state’s U.S. House seat. With an army of well-placed former aides and a campaign war chest already topping $5 million - vast by Montana standards - Baucus was a virtual shoo-in for re-election next year, for what would have been his seventh term, before he shocked Washington this week by announcing plans to retire.
Baucus is just the latest in a growing line of senior Democrats planning to depart the Senate at the end of the current Congress, including Iowa’s Tom Harkin, Michigan’s Carl Levin, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller and New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg. Most are card-carrying members of the party’s dominant liberal faction.
Baucus is different. He stands out as the Democratic counterpart to Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate who frequently crosses party lines to work across the aisle and to support positions that are unpopular in their own caucuses.
Baucus describes his approach simply as representing his state’s conservative views. He supported the Bush tax cuts, voted in favor of repealing the estate tax (and played a crucial role in providing low rates and generous exemptions when that tax was restored in 2011), has criticized his own party’s insistence on repeatedly raising top income tax brackets, and is a major force, together with House Ways and Means Chairman David Camp, behind the latest effort to reform our tax code. He has often opposed his party on business and environmental matters. Montanans tend to favor more development of public land, which the state has in abundance, than do residents of coastal metropolises, who generally see such lands as nature reserves or vacation playgrounds. He also recently voted opposite most Democrats by opposing new gun control measures.
Powerful committee chairmen attract big political money and a lot of lobbyist attention. Baucus has been widely criticized for accepting big-business contributions to his campaigns and for the army of his staff alumni who have gone on to work as lobbyists.
But Baucus is, after all, a professional politician. Senators often use excess campaign contributions to help one another out, collecting favors and literally proving the adage that money is power. Baucus has spent a professional lifetime accumulating power. Mostly, he has placed that power at the disposal of a small state that otherwise has almost no presence on the national scene.
One could argue, therefore, that Montana has been well served by having a professional politician in the Senate all these years, one who balanced national concerns with his home state’s values. Baucus has scarcely lived in Montana since he graduated high school in 1959. Does it matter?
Baucus says he will spend the rest of his time in Washington pushing for tax reform. He won’t be distracted by a re-election campaign, but my guess is that as a lame duck, his ability to influence and deliver a comprehensive package will be reduced to almost nothing. That $5 million war chest that he no longer needs might be the only leverage he retains, but it will be just a drop amid the flood of lobbyist-coordinated contributions that tend to swirl around any big tax bill, let alone the biggest in a generation.
Now married for the third time, Baucus is building a dream house outside Bozeman, Mont. I wish him and his family well. Having spent a professional lifetime representing his state - always professionally - in Congress, he deserves a chance to enjoy living in Montana’s wide open spaces.