Sen. Max Baucus's relationship with a member of his staff, Melodee Hanes, does not, in itself, warrant a New York Times Breaking News Alert. Mr. Baucus does not hold himself up to be a paragon of rectitude; he is not known for insisting that others follow a code of sexual morality or be damned or otherwise treated as second-class citizens by the government. What brings these allegations from story to scandal is, ironically, Baucus's good works, his conduct, the power that he has carefully husbanded as chairman of the one of the most powerful legislative committees on earth. It is alleged -- no, actually, it is a fact -- that, Baucus recommended his girlfriend, while she was his girlfriend, while he was still married (albeit separated), to be a U.S. Attorney in his home state of Montana. That she would bring legal qualifications for the job is immaterial; the conflict of interest is obvious and should have precluded any recommendation -- obviously. Baucus's spokesperson insists that his recommendation was made independently and (indeed, with help from outside counsel), and that his girlfriend withdrew from consideration because she wanted to remain with him in Washington, D.C. (She is now a Justice Department attorney, having obtained that position, one gathers, on her own.) That Baucus would ignore the conflict of the interest or so easily dismiss it calls into question his judgment and his ethics. That's a scandal.
Baucus has carefully cultivated an image as a steward of the nation's finances. Whether it is an accurate impression or not -- liberals will profoundly disagree, calling Baucus indiscreet in his relationship with corporate interests he regulates -- is a matter best left for political debate. But it is quite clear that Baucus enjoys leverage from his reputation as someone who would not abuse the power granted to him. That is one reason why the White House and the Senate Majority Leader put so much faith in Baucus and allowed him, almost singlehandedly, to craft the health care legislation that keeps the Senate in session today. Baucus's spokesperson denied that his relationship precipitated his divorce in June of this year, though there is both innuendo and an on-the-record acknowledgment that, well, it just might have.
The White House and Baucus's colleagues are no doubt furious with the senator, and they are also probably sympathetic to someone who has worked so hard and by most accounts been a credible representative of his state's values and interests. So far as health care goes, it's a distraction. And Democrats don't need distractions. They need Baucus to be a spokesperson for his bill. Now, they're going to have to figure out a way around his self-created image crisis.
It's always hard to predict where these scandal waves will end up. It certainly does not help the Democrats make a case that Republicans have ethical issues; it may help build onto a case that Republicans are making about Democrats (although John Ensign and David Vitter tear down that case in the Senate). It may make Mr. Baucus vulnerable to a Democratic challenger the next time he runs for office in 2014. And it will almost certainly precipitate an internal investigation by the Senate.