WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) new book is a paean to the need for civility in government, with entire sections focused to rules reform, the need for ideological moderation, and post-partisan problem solving. Its title -- "Fighting for Common Ground" -- all but alerts readers not to expect gossipy, insider tidbits about life on the highest rungs of political power.
But not all of its 300 pages are big-picture-focused or dry. Snowe goes into detail about the lengthy deliberations that took place around President Barack Obama's health care push in 2009 and 2010, while relaying one particularly memorable anecdote. Shortly after she defied her own party's leadership by voting to move the Affordable Care Act through the Senate Finance Committee, a call came in from Obama.
The President also called me after the conclusion of the markup. He began by telling me, "A great 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!"
The private schmoozing didn't produce the desired results. Snowe ended up voting against the bill when it came before the full Senate. She argues in her book that she did so because Democratic leadership wouldn't make the legislative alterations that she wanted.
The fault, she said, did not lie with the president, who had expressed openness to those alterations and proved attentive throughout the process. Indeed, Snowe writes that Obama went out of his way to assuage her concerns and win her vote: "In the course of the health care debate, I met with the President at least eight times in addition to more than a dozen phone calls. He had made this rigorous outreach effort because he was seeking a bipartisan partner who he recognized cared about the issue as well."
Why is this anecdote worth noting? Because three years after the fact, the debate continues over Obama's ability to move Congress to action, flaring up most recently with the defeat of his gun reform package.
Clearly, the president lacks sway over some lawmakers. But is that because -- as conventional wisdom holds -- he's too remote? As Snowe's book shows, Obama has tried direct engagement in the past. And it's proved insufficient.