The Secret History of Max Baucus’ “Train Wreck” Quote

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is trailed by reporters April 23, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. It was announced earlier that Baucus, after 36 years in the Senate, will not seek re-election in 2014.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

My colleague Matthew Yglesias is up with a classic SlatePitch: A collection of evidence that implementing Obamacare will go just fine in the states that are actually trying to implement it. His hook is the idea that implementation will be a “train wreck.” This might be a good time to explain where that quote came from, and enjoy the ways it’s been mutilated by the press.

So: On April 17, the Senate Finance Committee called HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to testify on implementation and other issues. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the committee, one of the fathers of Obamacare, raked Sebelius over the coals about a decision that cut the PR budget for implementation. The administration requested $554 million for PR. House Republicans, understandably, cut the entire budget for implementation. The fiscal cliff deal slashed the overall spending on the Prevention and Public Health Fund from $15 billion (over 10 years) to $10 billion. So Sebelius moved money out of PR and promotion and tried to make up that money by asking health care companies to chip in.

That ask became an outrage all its own. That was the context in which Baucus asked Sebelius how HHS was possibly able to educate patients and providers about a new law that was deeply confusing.

“A lot of people have no idea about all of this,” he said. “People just don’t know a lot about it, and the Kaiser poll pointed that out. I understand you’ve hired a contractor. I’m just worried that that’s gonna be money down the drain because contractors like to make money … I just tell ya, I just see a huge train wreck coming down.”

What would cause the “train wreck”? Insufficient awareness of how the law worked. Not the law itself. Neither at that hearing nor in the month since has the (always pretty mush-mushed) Baucus said the law itself would be a disaster if implemented.

But that’s how Republicans used the quote. In a column by Baucus’ former colleague John Sununu:

Baucus led the effort to craft and pass Obamacare through the Senate. So it made news last month when he called the health care law “a huge train wreck coming down.” His candor reflects the reality he sees on the ground. The federal government has just four months before an October deadline to design and implement online insurance exchanges to serve 20 million people across 34 states. It is woefully behind schedule.

In a speech by Baucus’ current colleague Mike Johanns:

I’m certain that you’ve seen stories in the last few weeks about the difficulty expected in implementing President Obama’s health care law. One of the bill’s authors, in fact, Senator Max Baucus, said the law’s implementation would lead to a train wreck, to use his words. Majority Leader Reid agreed with him.

Reid actually agreed that it would be a “train wreck” only if it wasn’t promoted the right way, but whatever, this was from Mitch McConnell:

What’s happening here is that everything Senate and House Republicans predicted with regard to Obamacare is coming true. Jobs are being lost. Premiums are going up. If you have a health insurance policy that you like, you’re not going to get to keep it. The chances are you will lose it.  This is, as the chairman of the Finance Committee said, “a train wreck.”

It wasn’t just Republicans expanding a quote about PR and implementation to cover every aspect of implementation. In an April 30 press conference question from NBC News’ Chuck Todd:

Max Baucus, Democratic Senator, referred to the implementation as your health care law as a potential train wreck. And other Democrats have been whispering nervousness about the implementation and the impact – and it’s all self-centered a little bit – the impact that it might have on their own political campaigns in 2014.  Why do you think – just curious – why does Senator Baucus, somebody who ostensibly helped write your bill, believe that this is going to be a train wreck?

Sean Hannity has gnawed on the “train wreck” line like a starving dog who found a soup bone. On April 30:

Mr. President, Obamacare implementation is, to quote Democratic Senator Max Baucus, “it’s a train wreck.” And here’s a prediction, the disastrous effects of Obamacare will be a huge and hugely negative factor for Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections.

On May 3:

Keep in mind that even when the president is able to implement a piece of his radical agenda, it doesn’t always work out the way he planned. Take, for example, Obamacare.  Now the liberal law that has now has Democrats calling it a, quote, “train wreck.” Even Harry Reid uttered the agreement in that statement.

Even Charlie Rose got into it on May 17, asking panelists about implementation: “Does everybody, in the words of Max Baucus, consider this a train wreck?” It was conventional wisdom—even the author of Obamacare said the law would be a train wreck if implemented.

This is a useful study of the power of misapplied quotes. There are plenty of stories about Obamacare implementation gone wrong. Start with the saga of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, expected to enroll 400,000 people at a cost of $5 billion. They’re a third of the way there and the money’s running out. But Baucus was trying to say that implementation could work if the promotional budget wasn’t cannibalized or squandered. That’s been lost to a far sexier story built on a misunderstood quote.