The Baucus-Hanes Flap: Status Quo in Montana Politics

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The latest revelation of Senator Baucus' attempt to gain a political appointment for his girlfriend, Melodee Hanes, is nothing new to Montana politics and the entrenched "Baucus political party machine," that has Montana politics in a strangle hold. Senator Baucus' abuse of power is only now becoming evident because of his mishandling of the health care reform agenda of President Obama.

There are many worthy community leaders who are more deserving of the Senator's attention to gain political appointments in the Obama administration. The state party political operatives are becoming increasingly antagonistic as the health care debate wears on. A good example of this is the President's speech to the nation on health care reform.

I blogged about my experience during that speech, where I went and listened at a local bar to report on local reactions earlier this fall. The President Obama Watch party was sponsored by Organizing for America at the Badlander, a small bar on Ryman street in downtown Missoula. This city is the heart and soul of the Montana progressive movement. I came to listen with the crowd; a rare Presidential address before a joint session of Congress.

Missoula is a haven for free-thinkers, liberals, writers, and artists; it is one of the most politically astute cities in America. It is the major urban center in western Montana. It was a major social event on April 5, 2008, when then-candidate Obama visited this city and spoke before a packed arena at the Adams Center. The who's who of the Montana political landscape was there; welcomed and cheered on by Missoula's enormously popular mayor, John Engen. This is a diverse city where the progressive movement and the state's tribal population interconnect and interface; culturally, politically and economically. If and when the Rocky Mountain west turns from red to blue; you can be sure Missoula will be the lynchpin of a progressive sweep.

We arrived at this hole-in-the-wall, out of the way bar. Its plain interior belied its reputation where the best and brightest of the Montana progressives gravitate, imbibe and recharge. Forward Montana, a health care reform effort uses the Badlander as sort of a war room. There were about a couple dozen or more people watching the small screen TVs all above the bar and along the wall. The crowd in this small bar cheered the loudest when President Obama declared he would "not back down" on the public option.

They were silent and listened attentively when the President described the last letter he received from the late Sen. Kennedy. The president paraphrased Kennedy on health care as; "that great unfinished business of our society," he called it - would finally pass. He quoted Kennedy that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but "he also reminded me that it concerns more than material things." "What we face," he wrote, "is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country." The room was still and this crowd at the Badlander felt a sense of affinity and loyalty to the late Senator.

The crowd held on to every word as the President described his vision for a public option and declared that he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform would be realized. The crowd seemed reassured by the final paragraphs of the President's address; that in summary seemed to be an expression of a commitment to ensure a public option. He had reiterated governmental intervention in the health care crisis to the room's satisfaction.

The room's reaction to the close up of Sen. Max Baucus during the President's comments regarding the Finance Committee was that of loud boos and hisses; exasperation and anger. This is very telling of the stature the Senator now has in Montana; he clearly has fallen. Missoula, along with the Native American and women's vote; largely have been determining who fills the seats in the U.S. Senate and the Governor's chair. These voting groups share common goals and ideologies. Lately, these groups have been sharing a mounting sense of frustration over the Senator's perceived mishandling of the health care issue. There have been times his constituency has been at odds with Baucus, notably his vote for the Iraq war; this time it is different. He is conceivably at a threshold in his political career -- the beginning of the end.

The grassroots in Montana have mobilized; yet, it is as if their Senator has not noticed. During a Labor Day health care reform rally, Montana's other Senator, Jon Tester, attended and spoke to a crowd of several hundred people in Great Falls. During a recent 24/7 project to illuminate health disparities, Montana Native Americans sent in their health care stories to Montana's Congressional delegation. One terse response by a Baucus Finance Committee staffer was: "I get it." Now if Montanans could just be convinced the Finance Chairman gets it; that would do much to placate public option supporters. This of course has not happened.

Montana Native Americans are used to the Senator's aloof, sometimes obtuse and snarly contempt for this constituency. Now, constituents demand more. The health care debate has exposed the dark side of Max Baucus; one which his tribal constituents have been long aware of. Civic engagement, dialog and discussion between the Senator and Native Americans is limited to the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. This Billings based non-profit oversees "federal Indian policy" for the Senator. It is a love slave relationship. It is very much an ironclad good-old-boy network; the grassroots are effectively banished and out of the loop. The Senator and his token Indian organization have been extremely ineffective at curbing the high unemployment on Montana's seven Indian Reservations, and restoring the political status of two landless and non-recognized Chippewa bands in the state. The health reform legislation fiasco has been politically costly for Baucus personally and has left the state party at odds with its most experienced elected official. His mishandling of it exemplifies his weakness as a unifier.

The power struggle evident in the Democratic party over health care reform is as much a generational struggle as it is about differing ideology. Baucus' old school methodology in trying to cram through this legislation to industry's liking is not sitting well with his constituents. It is an odd and uncomfortable ground for Montana progressives who want to support a "public option" but were not given specifics from the Finance Chair; he is clearly beholden to industry interests to the exclusion of his constituency.

The challenge for the President will be to redefine and shape the policy aims of the party he leads at the national level. Every day that passes with party infighting is a day lost and the fraying of the party base. The Democratic Party cannot continue to be at war with itself. It is time for decisiveness. The President must undo and correct Baucus' mishandling of health reform legislation; or risk his own political future. The latest controversy, this time about Senator Baucus' handling of his girlfriends appointment makes it clear that he did, in fact, submit her name for nomination. There is no dispute to this fact and he has admitted it. This illustrates Baucus is again willing to sacrifice the public interest for his own gain.

This does not bode well for those of us who are trying to make a difference at the local level -- vote-by-vote. Baucus's self-serving arrogance must be challenged by Democrats who want to win elections in 2010 and beyond. With this health care debate that has gone on far too long in spite of critical and serious unemployment problems both in Montana and nationwide -- it can be said Senator Baucus has single-handedly derailed the change people sought in 2008. It is sad and at the same time, disgusting to see the Senate Majority leader stand by him today, as if to say -- business as usual.