Thursday, April 24, 2014
Former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe is currently on a national tour promoting her book "Fighting for Common Ground," in which she proclaims the need for dialogue and cooperation in government.
Unfortunately, her actions don't always match her words.
If there were a single embodiment of the "my-way-or-the-highway ideology" that Snowe opposes in her book, it would be Gov. Paul LePage. Almost single-handedly, LePage has changed the political culture in Augusta.
He attacks his opponents in offensive public statements, refuses to meet with the leadership of the Legislature and delights in vetoing unanimous bills, overturning bipartisan coalitions and creating legislative gridlock. The biggest bipartisan compromise this session, the state budget, occurred despite LePage's best efforts to sabotage it.
Would it surprise you to learn that Snowe hosted a major fundraiser for LePage's re-election campaign last month?
Snowe's idea of political moderation has always been somewhat flexible.
I most respect political moderates who take common-sense and centrist positions and hold true to them, even as others become radicalized. A good Maine example is Margaret Chase Smith, who in 1950 was alone in speaking out against Joseph McCarthy, standing like a boulder in the sea as the tide of her own party's extremism frothed around her.
When the tide of the tea party rolled in over the last few years, however, Olympia Snowe herself acted less like a boulder and more like a piece of kelp. As her party surged to the right, she went with it.
This shift can be seen clearly in the rankings put out each year by the conservative Club for Growth, an organization known for enforcing Republican orthodoxy and backing primary challenges against those they deem insufficiently pure.
From 2005 to 2008, Snowe garnered an average rating of just 13 percent from the group based on her votes on a variety of issues. Then, in 2009, something changed. As the tea party formed and the GOP lurched rightward, Snowe's conservative rating shot up to 53 percent. It would remain between 49 percent and 55 percent for the rest of her time in Congress.
This makes some sense if you understand how Snowe thinks about being a moderate. Based on her past statements and actions, it's obvious that she cares deeply about the processes of the Senate.
She values inclusion, discussion and consultation to the point that she's been willing to vote to filibuster legislation she supports in principle, like the DISCLOSE Act campaign finance reform bill, because of how it was moved through the Senate. She believes that good process and compromise will necessarily lead to good policy, and her idea of finding common ground has often been for both sides to move an equal distance, with less concern for where they started or where they end up.
Unfortunately, this approach ignores the fact that the distortion of congressional procedures toward partisan ends and the lack of meaningful dialogue across party lines aren't causing greater political extremism, but are symptoms of it. It also sidesteps the reality that the underlying extremist disease has metastasized to a far greater extent on one side of the political body.
As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein noted in The Washington Post, "the data say clearly that Republicans have moved farther to the right than Democrats have to the left." This is exacerbated by the fact that "Republicans have often been led by their most extreme members of Congress."
Since leaving Congress, Snowe has talked about engaging in a more muscular kind of centrism than what she practiced in the Senate, including creating a grass-roots, pragmatic movement through social media and acting personally as a "catalyst for change." If that's her goal, there are actions she can take right here and now (in addition to not fundraising for LePage) to spark change, fix our politics and improve people's lives.
She could, for instance, lend her support to health care expansion in Maine. In the Senate, Snowe fought to make sure that the Affordable Care Act would give Maine credit for having already covered certain vulnerable populations through Medicaid. Now, thanks to unreasoning obstinacy from LePage and the Republican minority, that fully funded expansion sits in limbo and almost 70,000 Mainers will be denied care starting in January.
There's no economic or policy reason to refuse the federal funds, just partisan spite, and people will likely suffer and die because of it. It's exactly the kind of extreme politics leading to bad policy that Snowe claims to abhor.
Without actions like these, Snowe isn't really fighting for common ground, she's just eulogizing it.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He can be contacted at: