Sunday, May 27, 2001 MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL SUMMARY: Sen. Max Baucus could face increased pressure. The political shift in Washington, D.C., will change the stakes and nature of his 2002 re-election campaign.
The abrupt shift of power in the U.S. Senate, engineered not at the polls but in the cloakroom, will likely have a significant impact on George W. Bush's agenda, particularly his ability to get conservative judges and other appointments. And it will inhibit his ability to push through the more minor elements of his legislative agenda, the ones that don't get a lot of attention.
It will also radically change the dynamics at work in the next election, and therein lies a story that will play out in Montana. Let's title this story "The Revenge of the Red States."
That electoral map from the 2000 presidential election is now burned into the memory of most interested voters. While Bush and Gore almost evenly split the vote in 2000, the overwhelming majority of the land mass of the United States was clearly Republican. It is this huge red swath through the middle of America with a blue fringe on the edges. The map tells the preeminent story of American politics at the beginning of the 21st century. We've camped up as big-city interests against rural interests. The Democrats have become the party of big cities with big-city problems and big-city values. The Republicans have tied themselves more closely to rural interests and rural values. Thus the highly partisan nature of today's national politics really only reflects the deep divisions that exist within America itself. Life in New York and Chicago is very different than life in Hungry Horse and Two Dot, and it is getting more different every day. It should not be surprising that residents thereof have very different perspectives.
These divisions will show up most clearly in the House, where representatives are elected by pockets of people. But since each state gets two senators, the Senate should be overwhelmingly Red, just like the majority of states. It isn't, though, because a number of rural-state Democratic senators have managed to hang onto jobs they won many years ago in a very different political climate.
Montana's Max Baucus, a longtime Democrat from an increasingly Republican state, is up for re-election next year. Since the party out of power in the White House usually picks up seats in mid-term elections, he stood a decent chance of winning, although the polls show his popularity sagging. Baucus has always been pretty good at walking a narrow line, keeping the faith with his party without antagonizing too many Republicans. His work on the tax cut bill has been exemplary and won even Bush's praise on Wednesday. As ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, Baucus helped engineer a small decrease in the president's proposal - enough to mollify some other Democrats, and then broke ranks with his party leaders to approve the bill.
A fiscal moderate, a gun rights moderate, a defender of sane environmental safeguards and a staunch supporter of economic development in Montana, Baucus has managed to bridge the gap between parties. And he has managed to avoid the rhetoric of class warfare which today dominates speech in his party. But he's still a Democratic loyalist in Washington and will mostly vote with his party leaders when called upon to do so. For instance, he supported Janet Reno for attorney general but opposed John Ashcroft. Not a lot of Montanans would have seen it the same way.
If Baucus can succeed in making the next election about himself and his record and his seniority in the Senate, he may pull it out. As the new chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, he will certainly get plenty of money and attention. But with the balance of the Senate tipping Democratic by a single seat, the risk for Baucus and other Red State Democrats is that the election will be about control of the Senate and support of Bush's agenda, which is still pretty popular here in Red Land. Indeed, since his election, Bush's popularity has continuously exceeded Clinton's in the same period of his presidency. Middle America's sense of fairness says a new president at least ought to get to name the people who will lead his government departments and get a fair up-or-down vote on his judicial appointments and agenda initiatives.
In power by a single vote, the Democrats can obstruct these processes only by using their procedural powers as committee chairs to clog the process and prevent the votes.
The way it stands, a vote for Baucus in 2002 will be a vote for Ted Kennedy to chair the Health, Education and Welfare Committee, which will get first shot at all Bush's education proposals. It will be a vote for Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy to chair the Judiciary Committee, which must pass on all appointments of judges. It will be a vote for Democratic majorities in other key committees, including environment, energy and agriculture. It will be a vote to empower the likes of Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton and Paul Wellstone.
This is a pretty powerful campaign message for state Sen. Mike Taylor,
R-Proctor, and whoever else might emerge to oppose Baucus in 2002.
It would be helpful to Baucus if the Democrats do not now overplay their hand, as Newt Gingrich did following the sweeping "Contract with America" victory seven years ago. But that seems unlikely, given the firebrand liberal nature of the Senate leadership and the obstructionist role it was playing even before as the minority party.
Baucus' opponents must be rubbing their hands together in anticipation. They now have the ability to run against Ted Kennedy or whoever shows up as the bad guy in the next 12 months and not Max Baucus, the same way Bill Clinton in 1996 ran against Gingrich rather than Bob Dole, rendering the likeable Dole irrelevant.
Should the economy rebound and Bush's popularity remain high while the Senate becomes America's legislative bottleneck and fountainhead of partisan bickering it will be a lot harder in 2002 to remain a Blue senator in a Red state.