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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

This is a thinking-aloud post about the meaning and import of political cover in American politics today which, by and large, refers to the achieving by one party of partisan political cover from the other via useful defectors. I’m sure readers have their own thoughts on the matter.

Let’s start with the most obvious and timely of subjects: Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe. Her vote in committee this week in support of the Senate’s version of the health care reform bill was literally front-page news. President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised her courage. On the flip side, liberal House Democrats complained that she was a policy hostage-taker. The best quote from the latter group belongs to California’s Lynn Woolsey, who in her frustration seems to have forgotten how the Senate operates: “This is the United States of America. This is not the United States of Maine. I mean that one senator cannot hold the entire nation’s health care plan hostage.” (The same could be said for her fellow Democrat, Max Baucus, of course.) Somewhere in between these poles falls the semi-compliment from the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank who, in comparing Snowe to football’s Brett Favre, wrote that, like the Vikes’ QB, Snowe “has trouble making up her mind, but she sure knows how to play ball.”

Snowe is the belle of the ball this week because, in American politics, where party-line voting has been steadily increasing over the decades and cable television is equally polarized, the emergence of a rare partisan-political defector is like the sighting of a snow(e) leopard. (Yes, pun intended and no, not that Snow Leopard.) We stop in our tracks and, as a frustrated David Sirota laments, we marvel. But why?

The short and perhaps oversimplified answer is rooted in the us-v-them preoccupations of the national media. (I do not exempt myself, for the record.) Just as Joe Lieberman was, and still is, raised high in the production meetings of FOX News, so too is Snowe cited by liberals attempting to cast the health care reform in a bipartisan light. Or Bill Frist, who is a physician, which adds a further dollop of credibility to his recent admission to Time’s Karen Tumulty that he would vote for reform if he were still in the Senate. Of course, it’s easy for Frist to make such boasts now that he’s out of the Senate; when he claims he would have helped shepherd such a measure through despite resistance from his own caucus methinks the former majority leader recalls his legislative courage and independence too favorably.

The longer answer derives from the fact that, as the two parties have geo-demographically realigned–southern Democrats and northern Republicans slowly replaced by retirement or their defeat in primaries or general elections–the party cross-over types, whether self-styled “Blue Dogs” or dismissed as “RINO’s,” are heading for extinction. But when politics sits tenderly balanced on the fulcrum, as median voter theorem demonstrates even a single moderate has the potential to paralyze the political process. Oddly, were there more of them collectively, any one of them would not be so consequential. And so, as the middle shrinks the few still situated near the fulcrum rise in individual importance. This is what made listening to Lieberman or Zell Miller often so insufferable to Democrats, and likewise for Republicans who long endured the complaints of Arlen Specter or Christine Todd Whitman.

And so both parties–and particularly whatever party is momentarily in the majority party, and thus in search of even the smallest patina of political cover–must engage in this ritual of high praise and salutation of the partisan defector. There are so few snow leopards left, and all of us must stop in our tracks, binoculars in hand, to marvel at them.

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