Politics & Policy

Team Baucus

A bumbling senator's hardball staff makes a conflict-of-interest scandal disappear.

Max Baucus is at times a babbling monstrosity, grossly unable to wrangle his train of thought, ejaculating numbers without context. Anyone who has watched the ongoing spectacle of the Senate health-care debate knows exactly what I am talking about.

For the past nine days of Senate debate, I have drunk my fill of the Baucus stream of consciousness as the senior senator of Montana has summoned his years-long intensive study of health-care policy and tried, haltingly, to make use of that wisdom on the Senate floor.

I am, mea culpa, a 2008 Baucus voter; he was up against a man who believed America should abandon that whole separation-of-powers thing and become a parliamentary democracy — seriously. Maybe this is just my naïveté, but I tend to believe that Baucus is a well-meaning but hapless soul, a deep-down nerd with a faint touch of a blue-bloodedness that inheres when you’re a member of Montana’s equivalent to landed aristocracy, not to mention when you’ve been a member of Congress for more than half your time on earth. Others are not so kind to Baucus, or are more acquainted with the Team Baucus quoted in the paper than the actual voice and face of the senator himself. No matter. Everyone agrees that a man like Senator Baucus needs handlers. He would be a catastrophe otherwise.

Max Baucus’s complement of PR flacks has become legendary over the past three decades, known for jealously guarding Max against all (mostly imagined) insults and slights. A former journalist who reported congressional news for several Gannett local newspapers, including the Great Falls Tribune, says that Baucus’s long-time press aide and new chief of staff, Barrett Kaiser, “was a total jerk, always threatening to cut off access if you didn’t cover the office’s press releases.” Mostly, Team Baucus gets its way.

Last week, Team Baucus won a PR coup. When has the Sex + Politician + Job equation ever resulted in less of a to-do? The disclosure of the senator’s relationship with Melodee Hanes — late of Baucus’s staff, new of his household, and, in between, a candidate for the U.S.-attorney post in Montana — was masterful. Naturally, Baucus communications director Ty Matsdorf released the story on Friday. On Saturday, the Montana papers published the AP write-up, albeit giving it wildly different headlines — the Helena Independent declared “Baucus Hit by Scandal,” but most were more subdued. The Tribune relegated a 150-word redux of the AP write-out to page four.

By Sunday, everyone was talking — but only with the pleasingly professional storyline fed to them by Team Baucus. It went something like this:

The spokesman said Hanes “began the process of resigning her Senate employment” after she and the senator “realized that their relationship was developing beyond a purely professional nature.” She left the Senate payroll early this year.

As part of the transition, Hanes, who has extensive experience as a prosecutor, applied for the U.S. attorney post. Ultimately, she was one of three finalists recommended for the job by a third party attorney who was given the job of reviewing candidates for the job. Sen. Baucus recommended her to the Obama administration, “with no ranking or preference,” for the post, along with two other individuals, the spokesman said.

It was not until the next Tuesday that the Missoulian, a Lee newspaper known for its prodding of the establishment, provided another side of the story:

Eight months ago, when Hanes’ name surfaced as one of the nominees for the U.S. attorney’s job, the Missoulian asked Sen. Max Baucus’ spokesman whether Baucus was involved in a romantic relationship with Hanes — as her ex-husband was alleging — and if so, why Baucus would pursue a course that posed such a clear conflict of interest.

Not only would Baucus not speak directly to the Missoulian, but his then-spokesman, Barrett Kaiser, refused to address the issue and strove to keep any story at all about Hanes’ nomination from print. Indeed, the night before the story was to run, Kaiser called the paper and told us that Hanes’ nomination had been withdrawn.

With nothing from Baucus on the record, and no way to prove the veracity of Hanes’ husband’s assertions, the Missoulian couldn’t responsibly print the allegations.

Well — this is quite a different take altogether: The senator’s staff manipulated the press and rigged journalist ethics to make sure there could be no story. Team Baucus then bided its time, waiting for Hanes to get a Justice Department job, waiting for a nominee to the U.S.-attorney seat to be appointed, and broke the news in its own no-harm-done way months later only as word finally leaked out on the blog MainJustice.

The Missoulian revelations contradict the official Baucus version of the story, that Hanes’s withdrawal from consideration for the U.S.-attorney spot was somehow arrived at through Baucus’s and her own ethical initiative. It seems, rather, that she was pulled only in response to the press’s probing questions. If the press hadn’t arrived in time, would she have been selected? One never knows.

If the Missoulian had run the story and not allowed itself to be bullied, I think it safe to say the scandal, unmassaged by press flacks, would have been greater. Today, Baucus’s approval ratings have dipped to perhaps the lowest point of his career, a result of his leading role in the health-care debate. At 44 percent, his popularity is much lower than Montana’s other well-known elected officials’. Stolid Democrats disapprove of Baucus’s recalcitrance on the public option; Republicans and many independents, of course, dislike the whole shebang.

This conflict-of-interest story might have sent Baucus to new depths had not Team Baucus so thoroughly manipulated it. Other politicians should take note. I do hope the Baucus staff follows through and sends the Missoulian flowers or something for asking the question that led to Hanes’s withdrawing, but not publishing the story. The best of both worlds, it seems to me: Had Hanes been nominated, this scandal might have been a full-on PR nightmare.

– Travis Kavulla, a former associate editor of NR, lives in Montana.

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.

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