When Has “Compromise” with Olympia Snowe Ever Been Good?

by Paul Hogarth on September 21, 2009

In a truly disturbing article yesterday, the New York Times called Olympia Snowe the President’s “Best Hope in the G.O.P.” for health care reform – and elevated the White House’s effort to woo the Maine Senator as more “critical” than rallying public support for the plan. As the Senate’s most moderate Republican, the media likes to boost Snowe in these political fights – with Democrats hoping to forge some kind of “compromise” to earn her vote. But if history is any guide, cutting a deal with Snowe has never been a good thing for progressives. From campaign finance reform in 1997 to court appointments in 2005 to the federal stimulus to health care reform now, the only thing a Snowe Compromise has accomplished is to set back progressive policy goals – often irreparably into the future. And with 58% of Snowe’s Maine constituents supporting a “public option” for health care, there is simply no excuse to water down reform just to get her vote.

Only in the insular world of Washington DC can the public option – which has always for progressives been a compromise from single-payer – be called a “liberal” proposal that may or may not pass because Olympia Snowe (who some bloggers have started calling President Snowe) doesn’t like it. The fact is poll after national poll shows the public option to be the mainstream view. And despite a brutal August recess where right-wing Teabaggers disrupted Town Hall meetings, the American people generally trust Obama on health care and want to see meaningful reform.

Even in the most undemocratic of institutions – the U.S. Senate – a public option would pass easily, if Senators followed the will of their constituents. 55% of Arkansans support it, but Democratic Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor (the “Wal-Mart twins”) are balking. The public option gets much love in Nevada, but Harry Reid’s inept handling of the issue could doom his re-election. Even a plurality of Montanans want it, despite Max Baucus doing everything to kill it. And in Maine – where Republican Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe oppose the public option – 58% of their constituents support it, including 67% of independent voters.

But even though Olympia Snowe is out of step with the American people on the public option – and out of step with her own Maine constituents on the public option – we keep hearing about how her support is “crucial” at forging some bipartisan “compromise.” Any quick history lesson of Snowe compromises should make Democrats think twice.

Remember the Snowe Compromise on campaign finance reform from 1997? It went nowhere. Republicans were dead-set against the McCain-Feingold bill, unless labor unions were also required to get the individual consent of every member before spending political resources (which Democrats opposed.) Snowe proposed placating the right-wing’s “poison pill” – if corporations were also required to get consent from all their shareholders. Senate Republicans were too ideologically opposed to even accept that compromise, so the entire bill failed. Looking back on it, we should be grateful.

In 2005, Senate Republicans were threatening to use the “nuclear option” – i.e., kill the filibuster – if Democrats kept opposing George Bush’s right-wing judicial nominations (we don’t see the Democratic Senate majority today invoking such threats.) The Gang of 14 – which included Olympia Snowe – came up with a compromise that “saved” the filibuster. Republicans would not invoke the nuclear option, if Democrats agreed not to filibuster except under “extraordinary circumstances.” As a direct result, right-wing ideologues Priscilla Owen, William Pryor and Janice Rogers Brown got confirmed to the Court. We never saw any Bush appointees get blocked afterwards, so it’s unclear to me how it was a compromise.

After Obama became President this year, Republicans opposed the federal stimulus en masse – and again, there were concerns about getting 60 votes in the Senate to stop a filibuster. Enter Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to the rescue with a “compromise” – which included gutting affordable housing funds and tax cuts for mansions. Did Snowe provide a critical vote to help pass the President’s Stimulus Package? Yes, but only by ensuring that much of the needed federal funds did not materialize. The Snowe Compromise struck again.

Now, Olympia Snowe has argued against the public option – saying we should instead pass a “trigger” amendment that gives time for insurance companies to make health care affordable before any public option becomes “necessary.” Again, she is being courted as a possible Republican vote – but the ultimate effect of a Snowe Compromise will be to dilute the effect of good public policy into nothing. Now that Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus has written a health care bill that is an “absolute gift” to the insurance industry, all eyes are on Olympia Snowe to see if it’s another “acceptable” compromise.

The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result. Are Democrats going to let Olympia Snowe push a compromise that kills the public option, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – when having a public insurance option is what the people (including Snowe’s constituents) support?

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