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.