Obama's Pointless Pursuit of Olympia Snowe

"There she is, the Party of One!" cried Sen. Barbara Mikulski when she saw Sen. Olympia Snowe outside the Senate chamber last week. Mikulski, in a wheel-chair because of a broken ankle, rolled closer to the object of her praise. "She is belle of the ball, because she has got so much on the ball!" Snowe gave an embarrassed nod. Sen. John Kerry hurried by, but stopped himself long enough to bestow upon Snowe a lordly embrace. "O, we love her!" he announced. Sen. Tom Carper testified to her brilliance. "Olympia's terrific, as you know," he said.
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On Mount Olympus in Greece there were many gods, but on Mount Olympia in the District of Columbia there is one: Snowe of Maine, daughter of Spartan immigrants (yes, that Sparta). A Republican of the rarest type—a "moderate" willing to truck with Democrats—she is being feted, almost prayed to, by President Barack Obama and his party's leaders as they struggle in the Senate to amass a filibuster-proof 60 votes for "health-care reform." In the halls outside the chamber, every Democrat seems to have just come from, or be on the way to, another "meeting with Olympia"—if, that is, she isn't too busy talking to the president on the phone. Politically secure (she won her last race in 2006 by a 3–1 margin), and possessing the studious air of a graduate student, Snowe has the kind of celebrity that only the Senate could find riveting: her vote is entirely up for grabs. Despite a bit of grandiloquence and a habit of quoting Longfellow (who was, in her defense, a Mainer), she is likable and earnest. She was believable when she told me that she had not sought such a prominent role. "It's not me dictating anything," she said.

But the pursuit of Snowe is pretty close to obsessive, which is not a good thing either for Democrats or for the prospects of health-care reform worthy of the name. First, Snowe's exaggerated prominence is both the result and symbol of Obama's quixotic and ultimately time--wasting pursuit of "bipartisanship." In case the White House hasn't noticed, Republicans in Congress are engaged in what amounts to a sitdown strike. They don't like anything about Obama or his policies; they have no interest in seeing him succeed. Despite the occasional protestation to the contrary, the GOP has no intention of helping him pass any legislation. Snowe may very well end up voting for whatever she and Democrats craft, but that won't make the outcome bipartisan any more than dancing shoes made Tom DeLay Fred Astaire.

Nor would Snowe's vote mollify the GOP grassroots: they don't think of her as a Republican anyway. The notion that she is inspiring other Republicans to join the cause of reform falls apart when you see who is falling in line. A few prominent Republicans indeed said nice things about the Senate Finance Committee bill—the one on which Snowe was the only Republican vote. But that praise, from former GOP Senate lead-ers Bob Dole and Howard Baker and former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, loses its impact once you realize that all three of them work for major Washington law firms, whose clients include most of the big corporate players in the health-care industry. Theirs is rented bipartisanship, on retainer or billed by the hour.

In their stubborn belief that Snowe's blessing will stand as a testament to Obama's powers of inclusiveness, the president and his Democratic allies seem to have lost sight of the real point of all this flattery and praise: the need to pass a bill Americans can actually understand and that will make health care secure for all while also reducing costs. The symbolism of Snowe gets them no closer to that. (The final tally in the finance committee was 14–9. Snowe's "aye" vote, so hard won, was unnecessary.)

Worse, the pursuit of Snowe isn't uniting Democrats; it is dividing them. Democrats who haven't been in the room with her as she bargains with the leadership bristle at her role, even as they personally like and admire her. She remains deeply skeptical of a publicly financed alternative to private insurance, in good part because of what she sees as the failure of Maine's version of the idea—and yet some form of a public option is favored not only by most Democrats in Congress but by most of the American people. If Obama and the Democrats really want such a plan, they may as well try to get tough. For inspiration, the president might consider a Longfellow aphorism. "In this world," the poet wrote, "a man must either be an anvil or a hammer."

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