Olympia Snowe preaches wrong lesson about her departure

Last week Maine’s senior Republican senator, Olympia Snowe, announced that she was going to forego another term in the Senate.  Snowe, who has been a senator for 17 years and a moderate in the Republican Party, discussed her reasons in an oped article in the Washington Post.

She said no one who has followed her in recent years should be surprised by her decision. The Senate in her view has become “dysfunctional and polarized” and she has spoken on the Senate floor more than once about it. It no longer works on a bipartisan basis as the founders of the country envisioned.

Senate members, she went on to say, don’t appreciate that “there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus building – but also a political reward for following these tenets.”

On one level, I can sympathize with Snowe. It must be frustrating to see the legislative process grind to a halt when there are so many pressing matters to attend to – like jobs, for example! But on another level, her explanation strikes me as a “snow job.” And as a Mainer, I know about snow.

It’s obviously inaccurate to blame both parties for the present “dysfunction and polarization” in the Senate as Snowe does in the Post. What is turning the Senate into a dysfunctional body isn’t the handiwork of the two parties. It isn’t the result of intense partisanship on the part of Republicans and Democrats alike.

It is the doing of one party – the Republican Party. And to go a step further it is the work of the right-wing extremists who dominate the party, frame its message, and develop its policies. Moderate Republicans, like Snowe, are a dying breed and exercise little influence in the inner circle of the GOP. Indeed, their voices are drowned out by the over-the-top rhetorical extremism of their far-right colleagues amply fueled by huge sums of money from Koch-like sources.

Since the election of Barack Obama four years ago the war plan of the Republican right in Congress is, to put it simply, legislative obstructionism. Even the tamest, seemingly bipartisan, bills of the administration have been bitterly resisted and blocked by the right-wing Republicans.

Indeed, the president and the Democrats in the Senate (who are of a centrist cast of mind) have bent over backwards in an attempt to find common ground with their Republican opposition.  A noble effort, I suppose, but in the end it has paid off very little. If anything, it has only resulted in Republicans digging in their uncompromising heels even deeper.

Making their obstructionist tactics easier are Senate rules that require a supermajority to pass any legislation. In effect, a minority is able at once to frustrate the will of the majority and to prevent the administration from pursuing its agenda.

Thus to ascribe joint responsibility to both parties for the breakdown in the legislative process covers up the role of the right-wing extremists in the Republican Party. To suggest otherwise, as Snowe does, is disingenuous.  

Is there a way out of this quagmire? Not by hoping that the Republicans in the Senate and House will have a change of heart, a eureka moment that tells them to morph into responsible and reasonable legislators.

But there is a way forward, if the broad democratic movement organizes tens of millions to go to the polls on Election Day to vote the right-wing extremists out of office in favor of candidates that will turn their attention to the multiple crises that the country is experiencing.

It won’t be easy, but it can and must be done.

Photo: Sam T // CC 2.0


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time socialist and activist living in New York. He served as the national chairperson of the Communist Party from 2000 to 2014. Previously, he was the state organizer of the Communist Party in Michigan. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine. He blogs at SamWebb.org.