Happy V-F Day -- reform has finally escaped from Finance, with a Republican vote to boot. And I am quite grateful to Sen. Snowe for doing the right thing in the face of almost certain reprisals. It's not an easy thing to do, but she did it.
Ironically enough, though, Snowe's vote is a great example of why it's often necessary to enforce party unity through sanctions like committee stripping. Without it, it would be very difficult to maintain party unity on virtually any high-profile polarized issue. (See also Benen and Yglesias, who wrote on this yesterday).
Basically, it's a big collective action problem. On closely divided issues, the Dems would be better off collectively if they all stuck together. However, any individual Senator would be privately better off by defecting from the group. Indeed, there's a premium on being the first one to defect.
Snowe illustrates these benefits of defection. First, by voting "Aye," she's gained enormous influence over the final bill. She's also amassed an infinite number of chits with the other party (and has attained rights to any Baucus grandchildren).
Second, she's a media darling. Because of her vote, she's going to be hailed as a true stateswoman -- someone willing to put partisanship aside for the greater good. In short, her "yes" vote gets her a lot of power and favorable media coverage.
Someone like Lindsey Graham could also attain a lot of power and influence if he were actually willing to meet Dems halfway on climate change. Hell, he could probably draft the legislation if he promised to vote yes.
But GOP penalties add costs to these otherwise immense benefits. These sanctions alter the calculus of people like Snowe and Graham. That's why, I predict, that Graham will ultimately fold on climate change. He's less structurally free from GOP pressure than Snowe. Unlike her, he's in a Southern Red state where a primary challenge is a real threat -- and defecting to the Democratic side isn't an option.
All of these same structural dynamics apply to Democratic defections as well. It's not always that Democrats are chickens, or even that they're more ideologically diverse, it's also that defection (on the Senate side) is all benefits and no costs. Defection gets you power -- which is probably why Bayh wanted to start his little club earlier this year.
Of course, the objection here is that I'm being hypocritical. On the one hand, I support party discipline. But at the same time, I criticize GOP moderates for cowardice. And to be fair, there's probably something to that critique. I'll have to think about it.
In my defense, though, I'm not saying that Democrats should maintain perfect party unity. I just want to raise the costs of defection to ensure that people defect for good reasons.
If Ben Nelson thinks in his heart of hearts that this is a bad bill that will cost him his seat, then he shouldn't be punished for defecting. But, we still need the threat of punishment to ensure he's not defecting strictly for the self-serving desire to see himself on Meet the Press, or to squeeze concessions through bad faith blackmail (i.e., Liebermaning).