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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Why Is the White House Courting Olympia Snowe?

Howard Fineman is perplexed:

[T]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.

First of all, let's clear away some of the underbrush - namely the prickly things Fineman has to say about Republicans. If a health care bill contains: (a) an individual mandate; (b) an employer mandate; (c) plenty of new tax increases; (d) no tort reform; (e) few of the substantive ideas Republicans have been pushing for a while; (f) potentially a government-run insurance program - is it any surprise that almost all Republicans are opposed to it? Isn't that what makes a Republican a Republican? This reads to me like another critique blasting Republicans for not being...Democrats.

Anyway, I have some thoughts on what might account for the White House's "obsessive" pursuit of Snowe. Last week I posited that perhaps it was because Lieberman has already signaled his intention to vote nay, but the latest news on the "Independent Democrat" from Connecticut is that he might vote for cloture then against the bill. If that's true, then Snowe would not be the 60th vote.

Here's an alternative explanation. Below is a look at the ideological scores of key Senate moderates, by two different metrics: their DW-Nominate scores from the 110th Congress and their National Journal "Percent Conservative on Economic Policy" scores on economic policy from the 110th Congress.

Ideological Scores of Senate Moderates.jpg

The DW-Nominate scores typically run from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative). The NJ scores are pretty self-explanatory. You can really appreciate the ideological polarization inherent to Congress here by looking at the DW-Nominate gap between, say, Lisa Murkowski and Evan Bayh. There is a big gulf here, which helps explain that - contrary to Mr. Fineman's analysis - the GOP is in opposition not because they "have no interest in seeing him succeed," but because there is a huge ideological divide between Democratic party leadership, and even the most moderate members of the GOP caucus. If the lack of bipartisanship is due to the fact that Republicans have become more conservative, it's also due to the fact that Democrats have become more liberal.

But notice those peculiar members right smack dab in the center: Collins, Snowe, and Nelson. In actuality, each of them is closer to one another than they are to their fellow partisans. Collins, Snowe, Nelson, and Specter (before he jumped ship) are almost like a third party in Congress: the hyper-moderate party.

So, here's a two-part explanation for why Snowe is being wooed so aggressively. One: Collins, Snowe, Nelson are essentially identical on the ideological scale; accordingly, if one of them supports the bill, the others might follow suit. Two: Snowe voted for the bill in the Senate Finance Committee; if she eventually bails, that could be sufficient to scare Nelson off.

My intuition is that if a final reform bill can get 60 votes, it should actually get 62 votes because of these three hyper-moderates. However, if Snowe switches from a yay to a nay, that could be sufficient to ward the other two off.

Bottom line: on an ideological level, it might be fair to say that there are three factions in the Senate: liberals, conservatives, and this small group of moderates. It's not enough for Democrats simply to unite the liberals. They also have to find a way to include at least one of these moderates. On the stimulus bill, these moderates were a package deal. They might be again, in which case it makes sense to court Olympia Snowe, the one moderate of the three who participated in the committee process.

-Jay Cost