Thirty-eight years ago, when Max Baucus was making his first run for the U.S. House, he walked 630 miles from Gardiner to Yaak, roughly up the middle of what was then the state’s western congressional district.

I believe it was the same year, 1974, when I awoke one morning in Missoula to find that supporters of Baucus had hiked up and spelled out “AX” next to the 125-by-100-foot concrete “M” on the side of Mount Sentinel.

No wonder he was elected. That kind of enthusiasm and low-cost, grass-roots campaigning provided a refreshing break from politics as usual.

I got to thinking of young Max after hearing from readers who responded to what I wrote last week about the corruption of our political system. I haven’t changed my mind about what I wrote, but I did take to heart what several people said about my conclusion.

The column ended on a note of despair, a woe-is-us throwing up of the hands. One correspondent thought I was being lazy and irresponsible for ending without a call to action, or at least a note of hope.

I rejected that idea at first, figuring I had no business handing out advice, and no credentials, either. But then I found myself thinking: What could possibly begin to restore my faith in our political system?

Old memories

That’s when I thought of Max in 1974. As admirable as his first campaign was, he was young then and had nothing to lose. And though political corruption is as old as politics, the high rollers have not been idle these past 40 years. The influence of big money on politics is now all-pervasive.

So what we need is an established politician, one able to collect tens of millions of dollars, to announce that he is going to run on the cheap, accepting no money from political action committees, special-interest groups or out-of-state concerns.

This candidate could agree to accept donations of no more than $100 or $200, and from individual Montanans only.

Let’s put a name on this imaginary politician: Sen. Jon Tester. Who better? Max isn’t running this year, and even if he were, he has collected so many millions in political cash over the years that his taking such a pledge seems impossible.

For similar reasons I can’t imagine Tester’s opponent this year, Rep. Denny Rehberg, turning his back on big money. Whatever Rehberg’s principles are, he has been too close a student of former Sen. Conrad Burns.

Burns went to Washington at a time when virtually all politicians were engaged in log-rolling, back-scratching, earmarking and pork-barrel politics. Their creed was that of the old Tammany Hall politician: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

A broken pledge

But let’s not forget that Burns himself tried something audacious when he first ran for the Senate in 1988, when he pledged to limit himself to two terms. Twelve years later, looking out over an ocean of incoming greenbacks, Burns decided it would be a shame to deprive the state of his wisdom and experience. So he ran again and won, and was not unseated until Tester beat him in 2006.

Now we have Tester basically making the same argument — that as much as he would like to get out from under the influence of big money, without it he wouldn’t stand a chance of winning, thus depriving the state of his etc., etc.

So here’s my call to action: Sen. Tester, go for the glory. Tell the deep pockets they are not welcome in Montana this year. If you lose the election, you’ll be a hero and your name will pass into legend.

But don’t assume you’d lose without the money. Montanans aren’t stupid, and there aren’t that many of us. Even the most clueless voter would eventually realize what you were doing, and your refusal to engage in the televised mudslinging would be a beautiful response to what will be thousands of brutal, broadside attacks.

You’d also have to do everything in your power to discourage “independent expenditures” on your behalf — the source of those relentless, gruesome ads we’ve all grown to hate. Disavow them, damn them even, and run a cheap, personal, old-fashioned campaign, speaking directly to the voters.

You might even inspire Rehberg, despite all his history, to do the same. If you both did it, you could begin to change Washington in ways that neither of you could ever begin to do as a mere senator.

I dare you.

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