Three Reasons Appointing Max Baucus Ambassador to China was Political Genius

Whoever in the West Wing dreamed up the idea of appointing Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) as Ambassador to China is probably patting themselves on the back today. The Chinese post has a history of providing a solution to various political headaches; no sane politician or elder statesman could pass on the opportunity to serve as America’s representative to the world’s most populous nation. In 2009, the Obama administration viewed Jon Hunstman as a dangerous rival for the presidency in 2012, so they appointed him to the position. Upon his return, he took flak from the conservative base for daring to serve a President they viewed as radical. The choice of Baucus might prove to be even more of a masterstroke: it allows the Democratic party to shore up not one, but two vulnerable Senate seats for 2014 and reduces the chance that the White House will be pigeonholed into dealing with tax reform that would provoke fits of rage from their base.

1. Making Montana less vulnerable in 2014

Appointing Baucus to a diplomatic post means that his vacant seat will be filled by somebody appointed by Montana Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat. It appears likely that Bullock will choose Lieutenant Governor John Walsh, who will have a year to build his profile and fundraising network from Washington and have the opportunity to run as an incumbent Senator, which could dramatically improve his chances in a race that the Cook Political Report currently categorizes as leaning Republican.

2. Ending Baucus’ tax-reform plans

As a moderate senator from a state that swung to Romney by 14 points in the 2012 Presidential election with the ability to control the agenda in the Senate on tax reform, Baucus’ endorsement of lowered corporate tax rates and proposal to replace the current patchwork system of renewable energy tax credits with just two measures made some on the left nervous. Packing him off to China means that while his proposals are circulating through the media, the Senate Committee on Finance will now be chaired by Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is more in line with the party on taxation and less likely to accept compromises from the Republicans – or author them himself – that would make the White House uncomfortable.

3. Bolstering Mary Landrieu

Wyden’s impending departure to greener pastures on the Committee on Finance means that the chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will fall to Mary Landrieu (D-LA) who, despite her embrace of the Affordable Care Act and other Democratic priorities, is significantly more pro-drilling and oil development than Wyden. Landrieu wholeheartedly supports the Keystone XL pipeline, voted against cloture on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act in 2008, and has a lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters of 49 percent. Wyden, by contast, has a score of 89 percent. Landrieu’s assent to the chair of the committee will help increase her chances in a tough reelection battle in a deep-red state in the deep-red south by allowing her to point to the fact that she will have significantly more control over oil development in Louisiana than would a comparable freshman Republican, theoretically making her a much more valuable ally to the oil industry in the state.

Community by Another Name

On Friday, a week into “new member education” — “pledge” for those not versed in doublespeak — the leadership of Kappa Delta Rho received a letter from Dean of Students Katy Smith Abbott stating that in response to “an allegation of potential hazing,” all functions of the house would be suspended for an indeterminate amount of time to allow for an investigation. Each new member — who at a less absurdly Orwellian institution might be accurately referred to as a “pledge” — was interviewed individually. In some cases, the interviews were conducted by officers from the Department of Public Safety. In most, however, they were run by an external private investigator, Nancy Stevens, at a cost to the student body that likely ran into the thousands of dollars. The investigation, unsurprisingly, found nothing; there was nothing to find. A similar investigation in the fall of 2011 also found that no hazing. It seems unlikely that an apology is forthcoming for either unnecessary investigation. It seems equally unlikely that actual guilt matters.

Various members of the college administration often wax eloquent about the need to foster a greater sense of community on this campus. Yet social houses provide one of the strongest and enduring sources of community on an otherwise transitory campus. Even the most fervent haters of Delta cannot argue that filling Prescott house with first-years and turning its party space into a classroom has somehow improved the Middlebury social scene. Super blocks are not an adequate substitute; a super block moves into an on-campus house for a single year and then vanishes, its members joined by friendship or convenience rather than an interest in being a part of something larger. The administration has attempted to remedy this problem by giving the Super Blocks a theme, but the dearth of actual programming along those lines shows that effort has largely failed.

When students join a social house, they become part of traditions and culture that have endured for decades. Attempting to make it impossible for the current members to pass these along to new initiates is to try and create a Middlebury with no institutional memory — where students come and go with no knowledge or interest in what came before and what will follow, where the stories of a house’s previous tenants vanish down the memory hole.

Social houses are not the repositories of white, male, conservative privilege often associated with Greek life on other campuses. Instead, these houses are some of the only institutions on a campus otherwise fiercely divided by race, class, and gender politics that bring a diverse membership together with a common interest in a space and a set of traditions. In this they have been much more successful again than the other block housing options, which are often composed by students who come from similar backgrounds.

By contrast, KDR is arguably the most diverse organization on campus in both race and socioeconomic status, rivaling interest clubs whose specific purpose is to promote cultural understanding. That breadth of cultural exposure isn’t found elsewhere on campus in a structured setting. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the composites next time you visit. A coeducational membership also creates a unique dynamic in social houses that can provide an example for Greek life across the country. The Middlebury chapter of Kappa Delta Rho was recently readmitted into the national fraternity as a full and equal chapter, where it serves a model for the future.

The social houses of Middlebury College are institutions of which we should be proud. Their existence should be a selling point to prospective students — part of a trend that began here. But instead of trumpeting the diversity and progressiveness of the houses here, tour guides barely mention their existence unless prompted. Instead, the administration throws a series of strict anti-hazing regulations of the social houses that hardly make sense. Scavenger hunts and walks through the woods suddenly become dangerous and illegal. If my friends were to blindfold me on the way to a surprise birthday party, I would presumably have a strong anti-hazing case against them. The administration claims to use a “reasonable person standard” and suggests the type of alternative activities that might be appropriate for a middle school slumber party. One of their recommendations was to make a scrapbook. If mandated scrapbooking is not hazing, then I do not know what is.

This is not to make light of actual hazing. Hazing is a dangerous crime. But in the social houses here at Middlebury — at least in those that are not underground – it simply does not happen. It is long pastime for the administration to cease using absurd allegations of hazing as an excuse to strain, malign, and ultimately destroy one of the best sources of the community on this campus.