Why Is Everyone Pretending Olympia Snowe Is so Darn Important?
I don't get it.
I know that's the simplistic refrain of every 10-year-old, but I'm 33 and I mean it: I don't get why Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine - or any Republican senator, for that matter - is attracting so much attention.
In the last few months, Democratic senators eliminated the public option and substantially weakened their health care proposals in order to buy insurance industry acquiescence and, thus, Snowe's vote. Now all of American politics is focused on this unaccomplished backbencher and whether or not she will endorse the final bill. It is as if Snowe, not Barack Obama, won the biggest presidential landslide since Ronald Reagan.
This is bizarre.
First of all, Snowe's much-celebrated initial vote this week for an embarrassingly flaccid health care initiative wasn't necessary to pass the bill - Democrats had enough votes to move the legislation out of the Senate Finance Committee. That's a mathematical fact, as is the fact that Democrats control the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster with or without Snowe; as is the fact that Democrats have the 51 votes to enact health care reform through a parliamentary procedure called reconciliation - with or without Snowe.
So the notion that Snowe's vote - or any GOP vote - is inherently pivotal to health care reform is a fantasy created by the Beltway media and the Democratic congressional leadership. The former is desperately trying to manufacture headline-grabbing drama; the latter is looking for a Republican excuse to water down the bill and protect corporate interests - all while absolving Democrats of legislative responsibility.
Second, the idea that Snowe's support will result in the final legislation being called "bipartisan" - and that such billing will politically protect Democrats - is absurd. How do we know this? Because Democrats themselves taught us that via the Iraq war.
Recall that with solid Democratic and Republican backing, the 2002 Iraq resolution was far more "bipartisan" than any health care bill will be. Yet, Democrats used the Iraq war to criticize Republicans - and because the conflict was so wildly unpopular, Americans in 2006 and 2008 were willing to overlook the contradiction and vote for the only major party echoing any semblance of an anti-war message.
On health care, it will be the same in reverse: The GOP will invariably attempt to turn any bill into an electoral cudgel against Democrats - regardless of how many Republicans end up voting for it.
The lesson, then, is simple: If Democrats' Iraq criticism worked because the war was such a disaster, then the GOP's inevitable health care attacks - however hypocritical - can only be thwarted by making health care reform a major success. For Democrats, in other words, good health care policy is great politics, and bad policy is the worst politics.
Real reform that improves the system (i.e., a bill with a public option, tough insurance regulation and universal coverage) will transform the Democratic Party into an election-winning force forever known as "the generous protector of middle-class interests," as GOP strategist William Kristol admits. Conversely, bad legislation that makes the system worse (i.e., a bill empowering insurance companies, preventing a public option and leaving millions uncovered) will make GOP criticism of Democrats extremely effective.
That's a truism, no matter if Snowe or any other Republicans add their support to a health care bill that doesn't need it in the first place.