"Forget Sarah Palin," gushed the Associated Press' Laurie Kellman. "The female maverick of the Republican Party is Sen. Olympia Snowe." Soon it reverberated throughout the media echo chamber. "Take note Palin," advised the headline writers of a Delaware newspaper. "Snowe is a true GOP maverick." Asked another paper, "Palin who?"
So began the media lovefest for the liberal Republican senator from Maine after she cast a decisive vote in favor of Sen. Max Baucus's (D-Mont.) version of a national health care bill in the Senate Finance Committee. Snowe is being portrayed as a living embodiment of the Founding Fathers' vision for American government, an amalgamation of Margaret Thatcher and Joan of Arc.
Not even Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz can stomach it. He acknowledged that "Republican defectors tend to get good press especially, as in this case, if they're helping salvage a Democratic president's top domestic priority."
"Imagine the coverage a Democratic senator would have gotten by breaking with his party to help George Bush pass his Social Security plan," Kurtz continued. "No one hailed Joe Lieberman (yes, he's an independent, but he caucuses with the Dems) for turning against Obama on the Baucus bill."
The "maverick" meme was popularized by John McCain and Palin during the 2008 campaign, but it has since become a favorite liberal term of endearment for any Republican willing to follow the president into deepening the federal government's insolvency. And mavericks, like misery, love company.
Lindsey Graham has also entered the maverick sweepstakes. Steve Pendlebury of AOL News enthused that "when it comes to going rogue, Snowe's Senate colleague from South Carolina appears to have the edge." Graham indicated in a New York Times op-ed (co-bylined with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry) that he would be open to rescuing the cap-and-trade climate change bill now being abandoned by many Democrats. According to the Politico, not even John McCain finds the Graham-Kerry proposal persuasive.
Graham is also taking a bold stand against Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) and members of the tiny Constitution Party. "We're not going to be the party of angry white guys," Graham, a white guy, angrily told a town hall meeting at Furman University. "I'm not going to let it be hijacked by Ron Paul."
Whatever one thinks of the Paulistas, this is hardly speaking truth to power. Paul rebelled against a president of his own party in voting against the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. He defied his president on the Medicare prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, and amnesty for illegal immigrants. He even voted against the war in Iraq. Paul's grassroots following, while vocal, remains a rump faction within the GOP. Paul frequently finds himself alone in the congressional wing of his party.
Both Graham and Snowe voted with President Bush on virtually all of the above. They now seem poised to be similarly solicitous of President Obama. It is an odd sort of maverick who demonstrates his independence by regularly voting with those who are in power. When moderate Republican senators saved the Obama administration's stimulus plan, Ross Douthat, now a New York Times columnist, described their mentality well: "Take what the party in power wants, subtract as much money as you can without infuriating them, vote yes, and declare victory."
Perhaps the real mavericks are the moderate-to-conservative Democrats, who are holding out for greater concessions from their party on health care and cap-and-trade than those that satisfy Snowe and Graham. Or the liberals of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who would rather deny a president of their own party a key legislative victory than give up on the public option they believe is central to their vision of health care reform. Or the conservative Republicans and constitutionalists who spent eight years opposing Obama's predecessor from the right.
Mavericks of this kind seldom win as much favorable press because they are usually on the losing side of votes rather than the winning side. There is also a strong bias in favor of mavericks who vote for bigger government. When a politician stands against a bill enlarging the federal role in health care, expect any of their ties to the insurance industry or drug-company to be widely mentioned. When a pro-Obamacare public figure is in the employ of interests that, as Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney put it, "stand to profit from Obama's reform," expect this inconvenient truth to receive less coverage.
And so it is with declarations of independence from the party line. The applause is always loudest for the putatively principled stands that involve taking other people's money and bestowing it on the political class. That's the kind of GOP maverick even the Obama White House can believe in.