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Why Max Baucus' 'No' Vote on the Climate Bill May Really Help Its Passage

By appearing to oppose the bill, Baucus may be masterfully (and manipulatively) staging its passage.

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Max Baucus' no vote in the Environment and Public Works Committee establishes Baucus as the bill's credible opposition, the representative of money and industry, especially with Republicans excusing themselves from the process through either the certainty of their opposition or, in the case of a boycott, their literal absence.

Baucus stands in effectively: As the chairman of the Finance Committee, he speaks for money and he holds the requisite sway over the bill's fate. As a Montana Democrat, he publicly subscribes to a particularly conservative brand of environmentalism. The environment tab on Baucus's Senate home page is labeled " Outdoors." On the page he says he fights for the environment so Montanans can continue to shoot at it:

Hiking, hunting, and fishing are an integral part of our heritage. This connection to the outdoors is part of what makes Montana such a great place to live, work, and raise a family. I am committed to protecting Montana's outdoor heritage, so that our children can enjoy it every bit as much as you and I have. That is why I am fighting every day to stop coal mining in the Canadian Flathead, move America towards energy independence, and address climate change.

When Baucus prioritizes practical concerns over starry-eyed green ones, he gains traction at home. He looks less like a hippie out to save the planet, more like a hunter out to bag a moose. But in the end, Baucus supports the climate bill. He's playing a role in a piece of theater that has surely been scripted to produce a final bill that marries the one already produced in the House.

It might be a curious side effect of the objectivity trend in 20th Century American journalism that reporters often end up taking politicians at their word. We almost always report on appearances–for example, that 20 percent is more ambitious than 17 percent–and almost always report politicians' motivations as the politicians state them.

But surely what's spoken in the chamber has been rehearsed in the cloak room, and the fate of most bills is known before they reach the floor.

If you'll permit me a historical illustration: I covered the unjustified rise and resounding kerplunk of  Michael Huffington, Arianna's ex-husband, when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993-95. After buying the House seat for $6 million, Huffington was preparing his ill-fated, self-financed $28 million run against Dianne Feinstein for the U.S. Senate.

To run for Senate, Huffington had to toe the Republican line, and both he and Arianna did so ably for those two strange years in the mid-1990s.

But Huffington represented Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, where coastal liberalism thrives just over the mountain from valley conservatism. So to keep peace at home, and to cater to a similar division across the state, Huffington had to appear moderate.

Huffington's ploy was to oppose liberal legislation every step of the way, then vote for it in the final floor tally, which receives the most attention from the press and from groups that rank legislators. A self-described "pro-choice Republican," he opposed every abortion-rights bill that came before him in a committee or procedural vote, then supported those that survived. He voted to keep them from reaching the floor, then voted for them when they reached the floor.

Likewise on gun control, he voted for the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban, but only after voting to kill them both.

"Residents of the 22nd Congressional District can be confident that Huffington represented them at some point,” I wrote at the time, "because he voted both yes and no on most of the major issues facing the 103rd Congress, often on the same day." His record in Congress is a map of manipulation.

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