July 11, 2020

Why Sen. Baucus?

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Why Sen. Baucus?

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – It’s always risky to try to understand the mindset of a politician, but one truism that generally bears out in public life, is that once an elected official decides not to run again, he or she is freed of political constraints and can vote in the national interest. That proposition is sorely tested in the aftermath of Montana Democrat Max Baucus’ announcement that this is his last term in the Senate, and he will not run for reelection in 2014 when his current six-year term ends.

At 71, he said that he wants to see what more there is to life beyond serving in the Congress. He was first elected to the House in 1974, and then to the Senate in 1978, so he will have put in 40 years of public service, the last 20 either as chair or ranking member on the powerful Senate Finance Committee. His retirement is understandable after all those years, but the timing is puzzling.

Baucus was one of four Democrats who voted against the background checks bill on guns, citing the sign on his desk that says “Montana First,” saying he was voting the interests of his constituents. Except even in Montana, a frontier state where gun rights are paramount, polls show that 79 percent of Montanans support background checks. When Baucus voted against the wishes of a majority of his constituents, the assumption was that he was acting in accordance with his re-election prospects.

The National Rifle Association and its allies bring more passion to the issue of gun rights than folks who advocate for gun safety, so Baucus did what he had to, said all the sages in Washington. Then just days later, Baucus said he wouldn’t be running again, so why couldn’t he step up and support background checks?

One theory is that he miscalculated, that the backlash to his vote was so swift and sure that he realized he would face a primary challenge from a gun safety proponent, and he didn’t want to go through that. Indeed, popular former Governor Brian Schweitzer lost no time declaring his interest in the Senate seat once Baucus had taken himself out of the race, and it’s possible that Baucus would have had a tough primary fight on his hands.

Others give Baucus a pass, saying he’s a true believer when it comes to guns, but history doesn’t bear that out. Baucus voted for the assault weapons ban in 1994, a far more aggressive bill than the modest one he just opposed. After that ’94 vote, Baucus won with a narrower margin than he was accustomed to, and that could have scared him off this time.

Still, he must have been mulling his decision to retire for some time, and if he knew that was the direction he was heading, why couldn’t he have supported a bill that in all likelihood he is for? It was his one chance to become a statesman – or maybe not. Based on what Baucus has said in subsequent interviews, he sees another route to becoming a statesman, and it is through the tax code.

Over the next year, he will work to craft a tax overhaul that he believes will be his legacy, and the fact that he will never be a candidate again might boost his credibility in getting that done. As for guns, we may never know whether his misfire on background checks factored into his decision to step aside, but voting with the NRA is no longer a free vote. Groups on the other side are getting in the game, and vulnerable Democrats as well as Republicans will feel their ire. Harry Truman is credited with saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Maybe the heat was turned up just enough for Baucus to get out of the kitchen.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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