For weeks, as the Senate Finance Committee moved toward a final vote on a health care reform bill, public attention focused sharply on a single member of that committee, Olympia Snowe of Maine. That focus told us a lot about her: how she came to conclusions, what values motivated her, what life experiences had shaped her. But now the question is not about Olympia Snowe but about her Republican colleagues. We know a lot about Olympia; how other Republican Senators react to her departure from the party script will tell us a lot about them.
Most importantly, their reaction to Snowe's exercise of independent judgment will tell us how they see their own roles as members of Congress. Is their loyalty to their party or to their oath of office; to the club they belong to or the Constitution they swore allegiance to?
To be clear, there are valid reasons to oppose almost every item in the Democrats' health care proposals just as there are sound reasons to support them. What a constitutional democracy requires is not consensus but thoughtful consideration of alternatives and vigorous advocacy of differing views. The question is how one decides on a course to be followed. Democracy, after all, is not about policy but about process: not what policies one chooses to adopt but how important policy decisions are reached. To this point, it is not a distinction many Republicans have understood.
Elected by her neighbors (the Constitution breaks from British tradition by requiring that members of Congress be drawn from specific constituencies with which they are familiar and in which they reside), Olympia Snowe has an obligation to consider the perspectives of those she represents. Further, because ours is a representative, rather than direct, democracy, she has an obligation to evaluate as carefully as possible the options before her and to do, in the end, what she thinks is right (she need not follow her constituents' wishes if she concludes that they are not in the best interests of the nation she has vowed to serve; her obligation is to hear them out and take their views into account). So long as the decision she reaches is constitutionally permitted, she will then have done her duty. In this hyperpartisan world, however, some seem to believe her duty is neither to conscience nor constituent but rather to party. And thus there is some grumbling among her Republican colleagues and suggestions that she should be denied a committee leadership position she would otherwise be entitled to claim on the basis of her Senate seniority. The party that drove Arlen Specter from its ranks because he believed he owed the nation his best considered judgment rather than fealty to a political club now weighs whether to turn its betrayal-obsessed wrath on yet another in its circle.
Here's the thing. One campaigns as a member of a party (Madison's warnings against parties -- permanent factions -- having been long since disregarded) but on election steps across an invisible line and becomes not a representative of a political faction but a part of the government sworn to serve the nation's interests rather than the cause of partisan advantage. That may lead one to vote for or against a proposition, but for reasons other than, and far more important than, the desire to be true to one's team. Olympia Snowe is guilty of no more than having taken her oath of office seriously. It's something more of her colleagues should try.
(Photo: Getty Images/Alex Wong)