Max Baucus, MSU Speech

Former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus speaks at the Strand Union Building at Montana State University on Thursday evening.

It’s time for America to consider seriously a single-payer, government-run health system, says Max Baucus, Montana’s longest serving U.S. senator, former ambassador to China and one of the chief architects of Obamacare.

“My personal view is we’ve got to start looking at single-payer,” Baucus said Thursday night at Montana State University. “I think we should have hearings…. We’re getting there. It’s going to happen.”

It was a startling turnaround for Baucus, who eight years ago was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and a key Democratic leader in the political battles that ultimately passed the Affordable Care Act.

Back then, Baucus said, he felt adamantly that Congress wouldn’t pass a government-run system like Canada’s. So it was the one alternative he refused to put “on the table” for consideration.

But you can see the difference, Baucus said, when you visit hospitals on either side of the border. In Montana, half a rural hospital will be dedicated to processing medical insurance claims. In Canada, he said, just one small room is needed to verify that patients are residents.

And Americans pay much higher drug prices, he said, because the government can’t negotiate better prices with the drug industry, so U.S. patients end up subsidizing drug prices for the rest of the world.

Now President Donald Trump’s administration and Republicans in Congress are trying to undermine Obamacare so it will collapse, he said. “I think it’s tragic.”

Baucus, 75, who now lives in the Bozeman-area with his wife Melodee Hanes, spoke in the Strand Union Building to a crowd of about 300 students, faculty and community members. Sponsored by the Burton K. Wheeler Center, the event was billed as “celebrating a career in public service.”

In a discussion led by Nicol Rae, a political scientist and dean of MSU’s College of Letters and Science, Baucus answered questions for 90 minutes about his public career of more than 40 years. The crowd twice stood and applauded him.

Baucus served as ambassador to China for three years. He said he tried to talk to Chinese officials about North Korea, but it was often “like talking to a brick wall.” He said Obama’s discussions with the Chinese sometimes seemed like just checking off boxes.

Trump now is sending different messages, “hot and cold,” Baucus said. The solution to conflict with North Korea, he said, depends on working with China, and doing so with respect, carrots as well as sticks.

“There could be a deal,” he said, if handled well. He dismissed the president’s recent threats about cutting off trade with countries that deal with North Korea. “There’s not going to be a trade war – that’s stupid.”

Baucus decried several changes in Congress over the last 40 years. No longer do senators get together for bourbon, or lunch in a private dining hall. Instead every lunch is dedicated to party strategizing about how to defeat the terrible people down the hall, he said. No longer can you win an election with less than $1 million, he said. Now it can cost $24 million.

Baucus also lamented the end of earmarks, which the press criticized as political “pork” for the folks back home and as “bridges to nowhere.” He spoke proudly of getting farm bills, rural hospital money, conserving open space and landing highway money for Montana that built Bozeman’s North 19th Avenue freeway interchange and interchanges in Belgrade and Billings. Ninety percent of earmarks were good, he said, and they were “the glue” that held politics together. “We got bamboozled by the press,” he said.

Asked about the seven presidents he served under, Baucus shared several anecdotes. Ronald Reagan was a great storyteller, he said. Once in the White House, Baucus started talking about Montana. “’Montana!’” Reagan said. “’My favorite film was ‘Cattle Queen of Montana.’” And he told a funny story about getting his horse to cross a stream.

George W. Bush liked sports and was impressed that Baucus ran marathons. “’What’s your best time?’” Bush asked. “We bonded as jocks,” Baucus said. “He always called me Maxie after that.”

Baucus grew up in the Helena area and on the Sieben family ranch, and earned a law degree at Stanford University. He said during a hitchhiking trip around the world, he was in the Congo when he had an epiphany, that the world is getting smaller and resources scarcer. “That planted the seed of public service,” he said.

He returned to Montana and in 1971 served as executive director for the state’s Constitutional Convention. He won election to the Montana House, then the U.S. House. He gained recognition by walking some 630 miles across Montana, from Gardiner to the Yaak Valley. In 1978 he won election to the U.S. Senate, filling the seat long held by Lee Metcalf. There he served for nearly 36 years.

In the Senate, Baucus was considered a moderate, often infuriating the left wing of his party. In 2013, Obama chose Baucus as ambassador to China, a post he held for three years until President Trump took office and fired sitting ambassadors.

Asked if he would recommend public service to students, Baucus said “absolutely.”

“The most noble human endeavor is service,” he said. “I loved it. …Running for public office – it is fun.”

This story was corrected Sept. 8 to show that Baucus now lives in the Bozeman area and that he won the Senate seat long held by Lee Metcalf (and filled about one year by Paul Hatfield), not Mike Mansfield's seat.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.