Olympia Snowe’s Brilliant Strategy

Olympia Snowe may be proving herself the only Republican with a brain on the health care issue.   At the very least, she’s the only one who seems to recognize that there is a difference between legislating and focusing on the next election.   While some on the right gnash their teeth and hurl insults at Maine’s senior Republican Senator, she is doing more to help conservatives and hurt liberal Democrats than any one else in the GOP at this time.

The reality is that the Democrats have large majorities in the House and Senate, and if push comes to shove they can and will use “reconciliation” to avoid a Senate filibuster, meaning they could pass something with only 51 votes.   As I noted before, that wouldn’t be pretty, but it’s better than Obama coming away from this empty handed.   The Republican response seems to be to try to force the Democrats to pass something that they could pounce on, noting that no Republican came on board.  This wouldn’t do anything to forestall the legislation, but might give them a shot at winning back the House in 2010.   Of course, the legislation passed would remain on the books, and by the time the Republicans get both a President and control of both houses (necessary to rescind it) it may well be that the legislation will be too entrenched to get rid of.

Simply, the GOP strategy is focused on electoral politics, not shaping the legislation.  It also has helped keep a fractured Democratic party united at least in appearance on this issue.  If the GOP dug in its heels completely, that would strengthen liberals in the Democratic party, who would recognize that the “one vote to pass” requirement in both the House and Senate would mean a much more “liberal” bill.   Thus the GOP strategy would have the net effect of creating a kind of emotional sense of satisfaction at having ‘fought the good fight’ and not compromised, while assuring the passage of and perhaps long term survival of a bill they would hate.

Olympia Snowe’s strategy of voting yes and working with the Democrats changes all that.  First, the President wants to have her on board, and prefers a moderate practical bill to the one a “one vote to pass” majority would provide.  Knowing that, Snowe has been able to push for changes modifying the bill in a way more friendly to conservative interests.  She also has emboldened the Senate and House moderate Democrats who also are skeptical of major health care reform.   Her actions assure that the bill likely to pass will be one far more palatable to conservatives than would be the case if she held the party line.   She’s making a real difference in legislation.

Beyond that, she also intensifies the intra-party rivalry within the Democratic party.  She gives cover and support to Senate and House moderates, who now see the chance to get a bill they can more easily defend in the next election cycle.    Certainly these battles would be fought if reconciliation is used, but Snowe helps the smaller, conservative wing of the Democratic party, and keeps Obama on their side — so long as they don’t undercut reform completely.

Thus: Snowe makes things more difficult for the Democrats, and makes it more likely that any bill that passes and becomes law will take into account conservative concerns.   She’s doing what a legislator should do — understanding that politics is the ‘art of the possible’ and working to make sure that she gets what she considers the best possible outcome.  She is playing this role shrewdly and effectively.   She is doing what an opposition party should do in a circumstance like this.

This irks liberal Democrats who wonder why Obama doesn’t just push to get a far more liberal bill, and why he feels a need to lure Snowe over to his side.   To them, Obama is governing not on principle, but on a weak desire to find the middle and not get anyone too upset.  They want Obama to fight and push the liberal agenda boldly forward.   Obama, ironically, may share a lot of their views on the best end result, but he’s also playing the “politics as the art of the possible” game.

The President recognizes that if he is to govern eight years, he can’t assume he’ll have 60 Senators and a House majority of near 80 the whole time.  He’s setting up positive working relationships with Snowe and moderate Democrats, and showing an ability to compromise.  They will be there when he needs their votes moving forward on other matters.  Moreover, a strongly supported health care bill is more likely to survive than one pushed through on a razor thin margin, and getting anything in place is a first step towards more reforms in the future.  It’s easier to alter an existing system than to create a new one.

Meanwhile, the Republicans remain too much in the grip of the ideologues who imagine themselves far stronger and more popular than they are, buoyed by “tea parties” that were attended by the faithful and made the news in August, a slow news month anyway.   The “power” they have is illusionary.   Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck tried to rally their listeners against John McCain in the GOP primary, and failed to have even a minor impact.  The Republican leadership has misread activist unrest as a popular uprising, and thus is pursuing a strategy that may lead to real failure in 2010 and especially 2012.    As I noted awhile back, their reaction to Obama is much like the left’s reaction to Reagan in the early eighties.  It seemed to work at first, but then failed completely.

The GOP has to recognize that the true effective Republican in this case is Senator Snowe.  She’s not giving in to cheap emotions fanned by talk radio jocks or partisans who treat politics like a team sport.   She’s practically trying to solve problems and create compromises that limit what the majority does.  She’s got far more power over the outcome than Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.  In fact, she may be the most powerful Senator right now.

What irony — the most powerful Republican, and the one doing the most to limit the scope of liberal change from the Obama administration and a Congress with huge Democratic majorities, is being pilloried, insulted and maligned by many in her own party.  Yet don’t expect her to change parties or give in to pressure.   She certainly won’t lose any elections here in Maine.   Most Republicans, Democrats and Independents are proud of the fact that at least Maine’s Senators inject some New England pragmatism into a process too defined by ideology and partisan games.

  1. #1 by Josh on October 14, 2009 - 17:20

    I also appreciate her willingness to vote against future health care bills if she feels it is necessary. It does appear she is truly trying to understand the issue and look at both sides fairly.

    By the way (sorry to change the subject a bit), did you see the Senate debate on C-SPAN last night? Tom Coburn introduced an amendment to cut $1.4 billion of NSF funding for political science research. Being a political scientist, I was just wondering what you thought (I’m assuming you don’t like it). I’m not sure what I think, but I do ask this: how should we limit our funding of the sciences? Obviously we can’t do everything. What is more important: the hard or soft sciences? I’m a mathematician so I guess I’m a bit biased. 🙂

    Anyway, sorry again for changing the subject.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on October 14, 2009 - 20:44

      On the one hand, I’m likely not going to see any of that money, so my self-interest is not as affected as it would be were I at a research institution. I don’t know. I think that there needs to be broad budgetary cuts — military, domestic, etc. — and a fundamental change in how we operate. Moreover, the “don’t cut my stuff” approach everyone takes makes it easier to “compromise” by cutting nothing. I don’t think political science alone should be targeted though, everything should be questioned.

  2. #3 by Mike Lovell on October 14, 2009 - 17:32

    “While some on the right gnash their death and …”

    Gnash their death huh?? this sounds like some sort of super power…any online universities that offer courses on this? 😛

    • #4 by Scott Erb on October 14, 2009 - 18:35

      LOL! OK, I had to fix that. Thanks for catching it, I can’t get a typo past you…

  3. #5 by classicliberal2 on October 14, 2009 - 21:50

    What Obama has done with Snowe is idiotic–try to alienate the base of his own party, which has scores of votes in congress, in order to get a single Republican vote, in the name of “bipartisanship” that is nothing more than an illusion. It’s the stimulus bill all over again (he larded that up with hundreds of billions in less stimulative tax cuts–they made up nearly half the bill–in pursuit of this same illusion, and got a grand total of two Republican votes). While this serves the illusion, it serves no actual purpose. It just makes for bad legislation.

    The Senate Finance Committee bill is a sideshow, in any case. It features no real reform and is, in fact, a product of the corruption that pervades everything that comes out of D.C.–it requires that Americans carry health insurance, gives government subsidies to them for that purpose, the subsidies then go to the insurance companies, who, in turn, spend millions purchasing politicians like Baucus to ensure things continue to go their way. A corrupt triangle. I wrote about it on my own blog just last night:

    No one likes this bill. Even the insurance industry which funded it (the bill was written by the former Vice President of Wellpoint, not by Max Baucus) turned against it when the criminal penalties the industry sought for failure to carry health care were removed from it (that was the reason for the last-minute industry push against it that so baffled the press). It was a complete waste of time, has no chance of passing anywhere, and, in fact, we’ve likely heard the last of it. Debate, going forward, is going to focus, instead, on the bill produced by the Senate HELP committee (the relevant Senate committee). That bill contains a public option, which is favored by a majority of the Senate, and, as long as Snowe stands opposed to that, she’ll remain as irrelevant to the process as she’s been so far.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on October 15, 2009 - 02:44

      You raise good points, though I think Snowe will accept a trigger that will allow a public option down the line. I recall hearing someone talk about the stimulus bill as being “one of the best stimulus bills ever,” because it had fewer tax cuts than in the past. The response was that the Europeans always had stimulus bills focused on stimulating the economy and never included inefficient tax cuts. So to call the stimulus “the best ever” seemed odd from the European perspective. The American response was that such was the best we could expect given the politics in DC.

      Unlike the stimulus, it’s possible with health care reform to circumvent a filibuster. The idealist in me wants to agree with you, but the pragmatist/realist says “the only way they’ll pass anything is if they make those compromises, and then work from there.”

      No matter what, though, politically I think Snowe is playing the smartest game a Republican can play now.

      • #7 by classicliberal2 on October 15, 2009 - 04:57

        The so-called “trigger” is a thing that would be constructed in such a way as to never be triggered. Like any bill without at least a “public option,” it’s a non-starter.

        The 60-vote “requirement” is a propaganda ploy on behalf of the Senate Democratic leadership (which is shamefully trying to straddle the fence on this matter) to rationalize not doing anything. It’s entirely unnecessary, and the pose that it represents some sort of “realpolitik” view is not only false but offensive. Tom Harkin, who chairs the RELEVANT Senate committee on this issue, says there are already 52 votes for a public option, and there only need to be 50.

        If Republicans want to filibuster, let them try. They’ll lose, and big time. The public is overwhelmingly on the side of a public option–it polls at 65-72% (for that matter, the public has supported outright single payer by about 60% for decades).

        More importantly, no reform bill without one accomplishes anything, because it was the cost-control mechanism in the reform plans. Without it, things would actually be far worse than they are now. Rahm Emanuel is a vile slug who argues that any bill that passes and is labeled “reform” is better than nothing. Exactly the opposite is the case. The health care system is broken, near complete collapse, and all the Wellpoint bill would do is force millions more into that broken, failed system, while everything wrong with it is allowed to continue, and to get worse and worse, and reform becomes completely impossible because of that corrupt triangle.

  4. #8 by renaissanceguy on November 2, 2009 - 01:37

    That’s all well and good, if compromise is the goal. For a few Republicans defeat of any socialized health plan is the goal.

    It’s sad that it comes down to political strategy, isn’t it?

    Your last sentence reveals something very interesting. According to what you wrote, Snowe is working on getting votes just as much as other Republicans in Congress are.

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