In my first election as a registered voter, I cast my ballot against Olympia Snowe. It didn’t seem to matter for the Maine senator. While I checked the box for a token Democrat whose name I can’t even recall three years later, Snowe, a socially liberal and fiscally conservative Republican, ran away with 74 percent of the vote in a state that went for John Kerry by 10 percentage points and Barack Obama by 18. But with her bold decision this week to add a bipartisan touch to health care reform, Snowe might add my vote to her totals next election season.
Joining the 13 Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, Snowe alone amongst the Committee’s 10 Republicans voted Tuesday to send to the Senate floor a bill that dedicates more than $800 billion toward the most sweeping health care reform in decades.
Her move demonstrates a pragmatism and moderation that have been largely lacking on both sides of the aisle this fall. Most Republicans have vocally criticized the Democratic plan without providing any viable alternatives of their own, often stooping to extreme comparisons between Obama and Adolf Hitler or, in the case of Representative Joe Wilson’s heckling, throwing notions of basic decency out the door altogether. Many Democrats have proved equally obstinate, clinging to technical details like the public option while losing sight, as the President put it, of the “ultimate goal”—expanding health care coverage and ending insurance abuses. Snowe, however, has highlighted the importance in Congress of actually fixing problems for Americans rather than stubbornly sticking to ideology, and has disrupted the previously melodramatic firestorm of debate with the civility of compromise.
Even more impressive than the Senator’s decision to break with party lines in the face of the right-wing radicalism that has filled talk radio and town hall meetings this fall was her explanation for the move.
“Is this bill all that I would want?” she said. “Far from it. Is it all that it can be? No. But when history calls, history calls. And I happen to think that the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to take every opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to solve the monumental issues of our time.”
Here, in a nutshell, is an ideal philosophy of what representative government should be. Despite her personal reservations about the bill, Snowe recognized that a majority of her constituents want such legislation, with many simply in desperate need of it. Placing her own belief in fiscal restraint and small government aside, the Senator bowed to the necessity for change and embraced, for now, the reality that in a Congress dominated by Democrats, any reform must come mostly on their terms.
True, with the Democratic majority on the Finance Committee, Snowe’s vote didn’t really matter. And with 60 Senators caucusing with the Democrats, her support in the final vote on the Senate floor may not matter either. But the real importance of her bipartisan gesture is symbolic and not quantifiable. Snowe’s fellow senator from Maine, Susan Collins, has already announced a tentative willingness to play ball with the Democrats. This tinge of bipartisanship, though admittedly small, allows the Democrats to present their bill to the public as having cross-aisle support, invaluable to public opinion in a nation where the plurality of voters identify as independent.
Many Democrats worry that Snowe’s newfound importance at the negotiating table will be a death knell to the public option, and will further move the bill away from the liberal dream of universal coverage and toward a watered-down version that appeases the center. Yet if Democrats wanted to legislate entirely on their own terms, why haven’t they? Months after the President’s self-imposed deadline for passing reform, the Democrats, despite their staggering numbers in the Capitol, have yet to hold an up-and-down floor vote on any health care bill, obviously concerned about appearing to rule by partisan fiat. Indeed, as approval ratings for Congressional Democrats continue to drop, Americans have voiced their disapproval for any such action. The public wants bipartisanship, and for that, the public needs Olympia Snowe.
Chris Boots is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society. He is the Maroon Viewpoints Associate Editor.