Say It Ain’t Snowe

David Sirota

I don’t get it. 

The notion that Olympia Snowe's vote—or any GOP vote—is pivotal to healthcare reform is a fantasy created by Beltway media and Democratic leaders.

I know that’s the simplistic refrain of every 10-year-old, but I’m 33 and I mean it: I just don’t get it.

Specifically, I don’t get why Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe ® – 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 healthcare proposals in order to buy insurance industry acquiescence and, thus, Snowe’s vote. Now, based on the deafening media noise, all of American politics is focused on this unaccomplished backbencher and whether or not she will endorse the final bill. It is as if Republicans control Congress – as if Snowe, not Barack Obama, won the biggest presidential landslide since Ronald Reagan. 

This is bizarre for what should be obvious reasons.

First of all, Snowe’s much-celebrated initial vote this week for an embarrassingly flaccid healthcare initiative wasn’t necessary to pass the bill – Democrats had enough votes to move the legislation out of the Senate Finance Committee without her approval. 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 healthcare reform through a parliamentary procedure called reconciliation – again, with or without Snowe. 

So the notion that Snowe’s vote – or any GOP vote – is inherently pivotal to healthcare 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 healthcare bill will ever be. Yet, Democrats turned right around and 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 antiwar message.

On healthcare, 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’ hypocritical Iraq criticism only worked because the war was such a disaster, then the GOP’s inevitable health care attacks – however hypocritical – can only be thwarted by making healthcare reform the opposite of Iraq (i.e., a major success). For Democrats, in other words, good healthcare policy is great politics, and bad policy is the worst politics. 

Whether passed by one congressional vote or 50, 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, even if passed unanimously, 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 healthcare bill that doesn’t actually need it in the first place.

David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
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