Baucus Simpson

Former U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Alan Simpson attend a Yellowstone Public Radio forum on civility in politics with YPR's Jackie Yamanaka at MSU Billings. December 4, 2017.

LARRY MAYER Gazette Staff

Just because it was a discussion about political civility didn't mean it wasn't going to be colorful. 

Former U.S. Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and Al Simpson of Wyoming spoke Monday night at Montana State University Billings in a wide-ranging conversation that largely panned current national politics. 

Baucus, a Democrat, and Simpson, a Republican, frequently contrasted their time in the Senate with how the body operates today. They repeatedly cited their continuing friendship.

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Baucus Simpson laugh

Former U.S. Senators Max Baucus, right, and Alan Simpson attend a Yellowstone Public Radio forum on civility in politics with YPR's Jackie Yamanaka at MSU Billings. December 4, 2017.

"There were some giants in the Senate when we got there," Simpson said. "There's no one you can look up to there now."

Both men were elected to the Senate for the first time in 1978. Simpson served until 1996. Baucus served until 2014. 

"Compromise, to me (now), is a four letter word," Simpson said. "I'm a RINO now," referring to an acronym that conservatives use to chastise Republicans as too liberal — Republican in name only. Simpson referred to social positions that drift left of the Republican platform throughout the discussion.

He ripped the recently passed tax reform bill, which passed on party lines and under a compressed time frame.

"The point is, you cannot do that," Simpson said. "America doesn't know what's in there."

Baucus, an architect of the Affordable Care Act, cited the more than year-long process as an example of a bipartisan effort. But Simpson noted that the bill passed only on party lines. 

Baucus said that senators used to have more personal interaction in "the olden days;" he cited regular lunches that were "no staff, no spouses, no one but senators."

"The coin of the realm was trust," Simpson said. "And that coin is severely tarnished ... even within the party."

Both men — especially Simpson — called out "the media" as helping fan partisan flames. 

"These media folks who couldn't administrate or govern their way out of a paper sack ... will get you so wound up day and night ... with emotions, fear, guilt, racism," Simpson said. "These guys, these entertainers, they've made millions off of you, they don't have any idea what the legislation is."

Baucus also cited the expansion of media options and social media as catering to people's preexisting notions. 

"It's just much easier for somebody to shout something that wasn't true," he said.

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Baucus Simpson forum

Former U.S. Senators Max Baucus, center, and Alan Simpson attend a Yellowstone Public Radio forum on civility in politics with YPR's Jackie Yamanaka at MSU Billings. December 4, 2017.

Volcanic forces

Baucus agreed with a blunt statement Simpson made: "I think political correctness is stupid."

"All of us have bias and prejudice and feelings, and to say we don't is like a fissure in a volcano that all that stuff's gonna come out of," Simpson said. 

"I think that helped elect Trump," Baucus said. 

The two also talked about the need to interact with constituents, even when they could be hostile. 

Simpson, who believes in "a track" for illegal immigrants that's "not amnesty," recalled a constituent who declared that a border fence should be electrified to "fry" anyone climbing it.

"I used to say I hate to take questions from the floor before I'm about to go because they come off the wall," he said. 

Baucus said that town halls hosted by politicians disintegrated in part because of the behavior of attendees. 

"After a while, people on the other side started to take advantage," he said, citing "plants" who cause a ruckus for publicity. He suggested banning television cameras from town halls and restricting them to interviews after. 

If all else failed, a sense of humor may help, Simpson suggested, recalling a conversation with an angry voter. 

"He said, 'I wouldn't vote for you if you were Jesus Christ.' I said, 'If I was Jesus Christ, you wouldn't be in my precinct."

The forum was sponsored by MSUB and Yellowstone Public Radio. 

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