The Baucus Factor

If there was one Senate Democrat--besides Georgia's Zell Miller, that is--who was thought to be an easy vote for George W. Bush's megalithic tax scheme it was Max Baucus of Montana. In the presidential race last year, Montana went for W. by 24 points.

It wasn't always that way. Back when Baucus entered the Senate in 1978, Montana--by virtue of mining strongholds like Butte and university towns like Missoula--was fertile ground for Democrats, and through the years Baucus has been able to maintain a moderate-to-liberal voting record (he voted for Bill Clinton's tax increase in 1993, for instance, and supported the E-Rate program to wire schools to the Internet). But over the past two decades or so, Montana, along with the rest of the mountain states, has joined the Republican fold. Though Montanans went for Bill Clinton in 1992, they elected Republican Marc Racicot as governor the same year. Racicot, in turn, was so popular--at one point in 1998, his approval rating was an astronomical 87 percent--that he almost single-handedly led Republicans to their 1994 takeover of both houses of the state legislature. That same year, Montanans re-elected Conrad Burns, a.k.a. the senator from the National Rifle Association.

Now the GOP is looking to 2002 with high hopes of capturing another Senate seat. Racicot, whose gubernatorial term ended last year, was expected to be the man to do it--by running against Baucus. And to have even a chance against Racicot next year, ran the conventional wisdom, Baucus wouldn't be able to afford antagonizing his conservative constituents by voting against this year's tax cut.

But now it looks as though Racicot may not be in the picture. After religious conservatives nixed him from the pool of potential Bush attorneys general earlier this year, Racicot signed on at the Washington office of Bracewell and Patterson, a Houston-based law firm with ties to Bush. Shortly thereafter, he announced that he had "absolutely no intention to run for office next year." According to The Washington Post, Racicot has "firmly declined entreaties" from GOP colleagues to run against Baucus.

That doesn't mean he won't. And even if he doesn't, Baucus is still vulnerable. But Racicot's departure from the field would vastly improve Baucus's chances next year--and, for now, could augment his ability to stand against the Bush tax plan. What makes this especially important is that Baucus is the ranking Democrat on the now evenly split Senate Finance Committee, through which Bush's tax plan must pass before it hits the Senate floor. The committee already counts among its members Maine's Olympia Snowe and Vermont's Jim Jeffords, two moderate Republicans who are good bets to oppose Bush's tax plan in its current form. And Baucus? "Senator Baucus has said that the administration needs to stop fixating on a number and start focusing on priorities," says a spokesman. "He has recognized the Democratic plan as a strong and reasonable approach to the discussion."

Hubris Watch

"Well, I think it takes a lot of hubris to say that there's a bubble or there's not a bubble."

--Economics commentator James Glassman, taking issue with author Robert Schiller's comment on NPR's Morning Edition that a "bubble" in the stock market had burst. Glassman is the author of Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting from the Coming Rise in the Stock Market, which was published in September 1999.