A lot of the anger at Max Baucus should be directed at President Obama.

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Sept. 17 2009 11:49 PM

Mad at Max

Direct some anger at Max Baucus toward the president.

Max Baucus. Click image to expand.
Sen. Max Baucus

For advocates of health care reform, Sen. Max Baucus' legislation to transform the insurance industry is like dealing with the insurance industry: 100 hours of haggling, ending in disappointment. When the chairman of the finance committee announced his long-awaited health care reform legislation Wednesday, the opposition from left and right was so consistent that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's communications director forwarded a list of about 20 articles chronicling the discontent. "The only thing bipartisan is the opposition," it read.

And the strongest abuse has come from inside the Democratic Party. When President Obama mentioned the Baucus bill on Thursday, he received scattered boos. Howard Dean said it was "the worst piece of health care legislation I've seen in 30 years." Delegates at the AFL-CIO's convention in Pittsburgh chanted "bullshit" in response to it. "Max Baucus screws the caucus," said a senior Senate Democratic aide, characterizing the reaction of other Democratic senators. The case against Baucus is many-pronged: He shut out other senators. He bowed to corporate pressure by excising the public option. He was too solicitous toward Republicans yet failed to win the support of a single Republican. The disappointment has been compounded by the fact that he took a long time to deliver this soggy result. That delay exposed Democrats and the cause of reform to effective attacks.

All of which raises the question: If so many people hate this legislation, why not rip up the bill and start anew? Democrats will try in the coming weeks, as it moves through committee and to the Senate floor. They'll undoubtedly find a way to increase subsidies to help working families  and protect the middle class against a tax increase. But the tinkering can only go so far, because for all of its shortcomings, Baucus' bill is also what Senate Democrats are calling "the White House bill."

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Perhaps some of the fire aimed at Baucus should be redirected at the president. The legislation accomplishes much of what Obama laid out in his speech before the joint session of Congress earlier this month. The bill is not only deficit-neutral, according to the Congressional Budget Office, but it also shrinks long-term health care costs. Both are key Obama pledges. The legislation also includes insurance reforms, expands coverage, and has not upset the careful coalition of industry groups the White House worked so hard to align at the start of this process.

It also moves a stalled process forward, which also delights White House aides anxious to make a deal and move on. Now that all the pieces of legislation are on the table, the president can start building support for a final piece of legislation. Or, to put it more coarsely, he can start buying votes. In recent private meetings with senators, the president has been selling the Baucus bill. No, the bill doesn't include the public option, which Obama has advocated in public. But in private meetings, Obama isn't pushing the public option, according to Senate Democratic aides. "The public option is dead," said one. Instead, the president is emphasizing other fixes in the legislation.

As a matter of style, Baucus' long and so far fruitless effort to build bipartisan support has looked a lot more like the process outlined by candidate Obama than the one President Obama employs. Republicans claim Obama never really gives them a seat at the table. They can't say that about Baucus. He gave them a seat at the table and a personalized napkin ring. Obama says good policy cannot be crafted on the schedule of the 24-hour news cycle. Baucus worked at a pace from the Cronkite era.

Perhaps the idea of bipartisanship is quaint in the polarized politics of the moment. (No lie.) It may also be bad policy, leading to muddled legislation. But the president who leads the majority party talks about it a lot. That Baucus was trying to meet Obama's goals isn't all Baucus' fault. Plus, independent voters—who at 43 percent make up a larger share of the electorate than ever, according to a recent Washington Post poll, and who have been souring on Obama and the Democratic Party—tend to like attempts at bipartisanship. They also have been asking for Obama to slow down.

So a long, slow, we're-trying-our-best-to-meet-them-halfway process may help Obama cement his appeal to independents. Even under the worst-case scenario—if all of this delay and outreach fails to attract a single Republican supporter—Obama can point to the Baucus bill process and say they were patient, endured the political hits during delays, and tried to compromise.

At least that's the theory. If it works, it won't settle his critics, but it'll earn him the president's gratitude.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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