Senator Olympia Snowe shocked the political world by announcing her retirement at the end of her term. She expressed confidence she could have won in November, but said she didn’t want to spend another six years in the toxic partisan atmosphere that has overtaken DC.
I have always had a profound respect for Senator Snowe, and have voted for her the two times I had the chance to while living in Maine. I probably would have voted for her again. It’s not that I necessarily agreed with her more than with her opponents, only that I trusted that she would try to work to create pragmatic compromises on difficult issues, focusing on problem solving rather than ideology. I find it both sad and a bit frightening that the atmosphere in the nation’s capital has gotten so vile that she decided to forego a fourth term.
Last year she visited campus, campaigning for State Senator Tom Saviello, who does adjunct teaching for us in the Poli-Sci department, and State Rep Lance Harvell, who also has close ties to the university. I told Senator Snowe how much I admired her efforts at pragmatic problem solving over partisan battles. We chatted briefly about the atmosphere in Washington and her body language expressed physical pain as she talked about it. It was clear to me in that brief conversation that she was deeply troubled by what was happening.
Snowe celebrated her 65th birthday last week. She was born Olympia Bouchles in Augusta and lost both her parents to illness — her mother to breast cancer when she was 9, her father to heart disease the next year. She was of Greek heritage on both sides of her family, with her father an immigrant from Sparta. She earned a political science degree at the University of Maine at Orono in 1969 and married her first husband Peter Snowe that same year. He would die in a car accident just four years later.
Her husband had been a Maine state legislator, and she ran for his seat and won it, getting into Maine state politics while only in her mid-twenties. In 1978 she was elected the House of Representatives at age 31, representing the 2nd district, and served there until she ran for the Senate in 1994 to replace outgoing Democratic Senator George Mitchell. While in the House she served three years with John McKernan who represented district 1 from 1983 to 1986. She would marry him in 1989, the same year McKernan became Governor. She served a dual role as a Congresswoman and Maine’s First Lady during McKernan’s stint as Maine Governor from 1989 to 1995.
Through all of this, no one doubted or questioned her Republican credentials. She was independent and pragmatic, following the tradition of Maine politicians going back to Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine Republican Senator who in the 1950s was one of the first in her party to stand up to Joseph McCarthy during his witch hunts. Another Republican, William Cohen, later served as Secretary of Defense to Democratic President Bill Clinton. Snowe’s colleague in the Senate, Susan Collins, is also known as a pragmatic moderate Republican.
I started my political life as a Republican. At the age of 12 I was canvassing for President Nixon in my home state of South Dakota — also the state of Nixon’s opponent George McGovern that year. At age 16 I drove people to the polls with my ’63 Chevy Bel Aire for President Ford. At 20 I was in Detroit at the national Republican convention that nominated Ronald Reagan, one of the “Reagan youth” allowed on the floor of the convention during Reagan’s acceptance speech. One thing I remember about that is meeting two really attractive female Maine students and trading a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin for a little Maine lobster decal that I still have on an old camera case. Little did I know I’d sometime live in Maine!
From 1983 to 1985 I worked for Republican Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota in Washington DC. As I studied European politics for my Ph.D. and learned more about how the political system works, I drifted away from the GOP, though never felt completely at home with the Democrats. I supported and still support President Obama, and on most major issues my views are liberal – though with a dose of fiscal conservatism.
But while I drifted to the “left,” the Republican party has changed dramatically. In 1980 you had the Jerry Falwells and “moral majority” types denying evolution and condemning pro-choice Republicans (both Snowe and Collins are pro-choice). But the party was more pragmatic, less ideological than the Democrats seemed to be at the time.
So when I look at Olympia Snowe I see someone representing a kind of politics I too rarely see from either side of the aisle – the kind of Republican I remember from my youth. Consider the Republican party rhetoric during the primary campaign, the demonizing of Barack Obama, the extremist tones taken by Gingrich and Santorum (and Romney sometimes too – though I don’t think he has his heart into it), I have to shudder. I want to choose between two sets of plausible rational perspectives, knowing that the US system demands compromise and negotiation. Instead it’s too easy to fall into ideological jihad. When Republicans dismiss someone with such solid Republican credentials as Snowe as a “Rino” (Republican in name only) because she doesn’t toe an extremist ideological line, it’s a sign that many in the party have gone to a very dark place.
I don’t think most Republicans want to go that route. The candidates Snowe was on campus to campaign for are pragmatic problem solvers like her. Most Democratic and Republican students on campus get along with each other well and have good spirited discussions and debates. The Republican party in 2008 nominated John McCain despite him being eviscerated by the far right. Mitt Romney would not be trouble if not for caucuses that bring out the activists more than rank and file.
So if the GOP goes and nominates a Rick Santorum or a Newt Gingrich, I would urge Senator Snowe to consider an independent Presidential bid. Americans Elect is on the ballot in all states, I believe, and searching for a candidate. Snowe could represent an alternative to kind of politics we’ve grown used to from both parties. To be sure, I’m not dissatisfied with President Obama. But I want a real choice – a Gingrich or a Santorum gives me no alternative but to vote for Obama. Snowe would force me and many others to consider her – and could send a message to the GOP that as a far right party they risk becoming a permanent minority.