President Obama Pandered Like Crazy to Olympia Snowe for Health Care Vote, Got Nothing

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 24 2013 3:58 PM

President Obama Pandered Like Crazy to Olympia Snowe for Health Care Vote, Got Nothing

The benevolent gods of review copies have sent me Fighting for Common Ground, the memoir/jeremiad by former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. As woe-is-the-Republic texts by retired moderates go, it's got nothing on 2012's Arlen Specter offering. There are no tales of obese senators rising, Botticelli-like, from the steam of hot tubs. But it does tell us just how hard the president flop-sweated to bring Snowe into the cloture vote for health care. Snowe recounts a conversation with POTUS after she approved of the Baucus version of reform in committee.

The President also called me after the conclusion of the markup. He began by telling me, "A great statesperson [ed - statesperson?] once said, 'When history calls, history calls,'" and said I could make history by supporting health care reform when it's considered on the Senate floor. "You could be a modern day Joan of Arc," he offered. I laughed and replied, "Yes, but she was burned at the stake!" I added, "I don't mind taking the heat, but I have to believe it's the right policy for America." The President responded, "Don't worry, I'll be there with a fire hose."
Advertisement

What happened next? According to Snowe, "the melding of the Finance bill and the Senate HELP committee legislation was conducted in the shadows." Public pressure got to her, too—voters raised "legitimate questions" about the need for/wisdom of a bill. But Obama kept calling, reaching Snowe "more than a dozen times," meeting with her in person eight times. The final meeting occured five days before the Senate's cloture vote, in 2009.

Throughout the health reform debate, the President worked with me in good faith, and I believed he was doing so now. By this point, however, I realized that the legislation had essentially been pre-ordained. ... "Mr. President," I responded, "I sincerely appreciate your offer. But if I couldn't secure changes in the bill now, it's not going to happen when I'm the only Republican on that conference with all the Democratic leaders."

And she walked.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.