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.