Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Snowed Out: Olympia Calls It Quits

Last week’s decision by Olympia Snowe not to run for reelection this November is a major blow to Republicans’ hopes of taking back the Senate.  They will now have to spend precious resources defending a seat that had been red – albeit a light red – for seventeen years.  With Scott Brown’s senate seat hanging precariously by a thread and Bob Kerrey’s decision to run for Ben Nelson’s open seat in Nebraska, things are starting to look up for the Democrats.  Only a few months ago, political pundits were all but conceding the Senate to the GOP; with Democrats possibly picking up a few House seats and Obama holding the White House by the slimmest of margins. 

Now, thanks to the Republicans once more being themselves – as if they had any choice in the matter – and driving away independent and moderate voters with their culture war on women and gays, not to mention the recovery continuing to gain momentum, 2012 is shaping up to be a pretty good year.  The Senate is looking more and more like it will stay in Democratic control, the GOP-led House is now up for grabs and Obama's reelection prospects have risen considerably.

Conservative writers are even starting to have their doubts.  George Will, in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, pondered that neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum seem able to demonstrate or “develop an aptitude for energizing a national coalition that translates into 270 electoral votes.”  He compares 2012 to 1964, the year Barry Goldwater got slaughtered by Lyndon Johnson.  Will has been one of the most vocal critics of the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls, and he is not alone.

But the real story here, aside from the potential short-term gain for Democrats, is the gradual exodus of moderate Republicans not only from Congress, but from the Party altogether.  Losing Snowe in the Senate, no matter how politically advantageous it might seem, is a disaster for all concerned and deals a serious blow to what little hope there is of removing the gridlock that has all but paralyzed Washington and made it the laughing stock of the nation.  The problem wasn’t that Snowe was a Republican; the problem was that there weren’t more of her in the Senate, or the House for that matter.  In a deeply polarized political climate, Snowe was one of the few remaining Republicans who dared challenge the party line.  Though it is unlikely she would have faced a primary challenge, she did face ridicule from many of her colleagues.  When she cast the vote to get healthcare reform out of committee, she was branded a traitor by the Right.

In a piece she wrote in The Washington Post, Snowe explained her reasons for leaving the Senate.

“Some people were surprised by my conclusion, yet I have spoken on the floor of the Senate for years about the dysfunction and political polarization in the institution. Simply put, the Senate is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.”

Lest readers come to the conclusion that Snowe was speaking only about her Republican colleagues, there was plenty of blame to go around and she made sure to divvy it out equally to both sides in her rebuke.

“The Senate of today routinely jettisons regular order, as evidenced by the body’s failure to pass a budget for more than 1,000 days; serially legislates by political brinkmanship, as demonstrated by the debt-ceiling debacle of August that should have been addressed the previous January; and habitually eschews full debate and an open amendment process in favor of competing, up-or-down, take-it-or-leave-it proposals. We witnessed this again in December with votes on two separate proposals for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

“As Ronald Brownstein recently observed in the National Journal, Congress is becoming more like a parliamentary system — where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side. But that is not what America is all about, and it’s not what the Founders intended. In fact, the Senate’s requirement of a supermajority to pass significant legislation encourages its members to work in a bipartisan fashion.

“The great challenge is to create a system that gives our elected officials reasons to look past their differences and find common ground if their initial party positions fail to garner sufficient support. In a politically diverse nation, only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good. That is not happening today and, frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future.”

In case you missed it, she was throwing both Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell under the same bus.  The moral of Snowe’s story should be self-evident, but it will require us all – the Left as well as the Right – to take off our blinders and see past our own private Idahos.  It is not for lack of passionate debate that we find ourselves trapped in the middle of this calamity, but rather due to our unwillingness to arrive at a workable framework for consensus building.  Living in a bubble isn’t merely the purview of Republicans; it also has trapped many a Democrat.  The Left gets no brownie points for having a few less zealots in its ranks.

Whoever comes out on top this November will have their hands full.  The economy, while improving, will need further tending to.  The European Union is still on shaky ground.  And then there is Iran.  A bitterly divided Congress and a politically isolated White House will be hard-pressed to deal with these and other as yet unforeseen issues.

Snowe’s departure from public service should serve as a warning for both parties.  As the old saying goes, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.




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