Olympia Snowe, the sole Republican Senator to vote for the health care reform bill that passed the Senate Finance Committee, now enjoys a virtual veto over the negotiations. Democrats in the Senate and the President himself will likely scuttle their better judgment about any policy disagreements in order to keep Snowe on board. Her vote keeps that all important label "bi-partisan" on the bill.
Bipartisanship isn’t what it used to be. Lyndon Johnson got overwhelming majorities for Medicare and Medicaid, but in those days both parties were far different ideologically from what they are today. Democrats included conservative southern senators. Jacob Javits represented the great state of New York in the U.S. Senate until 1981. Sen. Snowe and her Maine colleague Sen. Susan Collins are the last two Republicans from New England serving in either chamber of Congress. Indeed, Javits’ primary loss in 1980 to Alfonse D’Amato was the harbinger of things to come as both parties became more ideologically driven and more ideologically homogenous.
Foreign policy was also an area where there was broad agreement between the parties through most of the twentieth century. Franklin Roosevelt knew he could not push the United States into World War II, and watched London survive the Blitz alone. After the war, Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenburg joined forces with Harry Truman to craft the policy of containment as the means for fighting communism that became the central policy of the United States until the fall of communism, protestations about "rolling back" communism proving merely rhetorical. Dwight Eisenhower’s defeat of Robert Taft for the GOP nomination in 1952 put the final nail in the coffin of isolationism. Foreign policy bi-partisanship, which was wounded deeply by the Vietnam War, could not survive the end of the Cold War.
As a Democrat, I am not really upset that my party no longer includes conservative segregationists just as I am sure that conservative Republicans do not mourn the fact that liberal Republicans like Javits or, more recently, Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut, no longer caucus with their party in Congress. Nor is it necessarily the case that the loss of bi-partisanship is bad for the country: Having more ideologically clear cut politics is not a bad thing per se. That said, in parliamentary democracies, where the lines tend to be more clearly drawn, the concentration of power in the hands of the majority also serves as a caution on the exercise of power: The loyal opposition, sitting opposite, will sooner or later enjoy that concentration of power as well.
The GOP has been more ruthless in exploiting the collapse of the bi-partisan culture, most famously when Congressman Tom Delay engineered a partisan redistricting in Texas even though there had already been a redistricting after the previous census. That showed a lack of reverence for established constitutional procedure that was shocking and should have killed any idea that bi-partisanship was still possible. But, one group of citizens continues to cling to the bi-partisan ideal: independent or unaffiliated voters. These are also the voters least likely to pay close attention to politics and, so, the least likely to have followed a story like Delay’s redistricting shenanigans, still less to draw sensible conclusions from those shenanigans. And, most importantly, independent or unaffiliated voters are the fastest growing group in the electorate and the ones who decide most general elections.
That is why Obama and congressional Democrats are so solicitous of Sen. Snowe. Her imprimatur guarantees that they can lace their speeches with references to "bi-partisan support." Of course, there is one instance in which Snowe’s demands should be resisted. The reform has to work and it has to be seen to work. If the subsidies are insufficient and the mandates enforced on middle class taxpayers anyway, Democrats will pay a huge price at the ballot box whether the bill was passed with Sen. Snowe’s vote or not. I suspect that once reform is enacted, and the GOP’s predictions of catastrophe do not manifest themselves, health care reform will be a net winner for the Democrats. But, they need to ask: How will this look to a family of four making sixty-six thousand dollars per annum? Then, and only then, should they ask the question: How will this look to Olympia Snowe?