Maine’s Olympia Snowe is officially a Republican, but really she is an independent, perfectly in keeping with her state’s independent streak. In other words, Snowe is a centrist, committed to finding common sense, bipartisan solutions for our nation’s many serious challenges, which makes her one of a vanishing breed in Congress. Her departure is a significant loss to the Senate because without people like her it is almost impossible to do the work, make the deals, and get things done in a bi-partisan way.
Since being elected to Congress more than 30 years ago, Snowe has frequently gone her own way, often working on legislation and voting with Democrats when she thought it was the right thing to do. Her independence did not endear her to the Republican Senate leadership or to conservative party activists in Maine, but it did win support and respect from the voters. She has put country over party. Unfortunately, that is becoming an exceedingly rare quality among our politicians.
She talked about this in her Tuesday announcement and also in an MSNBC appearance Wednesday, in which she discussed her concern about the dysfunction of our government. In her departure announcement, Snowe was blunt about the sorry state of Congress:
“An atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions…. Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.”
In a political career spanning 40 years, Snowe has never lost an election. It reflects how much the Republican Party has changed in just six years that in 2006 Snowe was unopposed in the GOP primary, had token Democratic opposition, and won with 74 percent of the vote -- but now has decided not to seek re-election. She still has high statewide approval ratings, and it was expected she could have won re-election. But she would also have faced a primary challenge from the right.
Although Snowe’s office has denied that she has any interest in running as an Independent for president, she would be a formidable candidate. About a third of Maine’s voters are registered Independents, a bit under the national average of 40 percent as recently recorded by the Gallup poll, the highest number in 70 years.
Snowe is the kind of socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican that I have labeled “NPR Republicans” in my new book “The Swing Vote.” Even though they are disappearing from Congress, these voters are not an urban legend. There are still plenty of NPR Republicans around the country. They are bountiful in Massachusetts and the rest of New England, and they are a pivotal swing voting group.
But they are being driven out of political office by the hard right turn of the Republican Party, the influence of Tea Party supporters and the allegiance to the religious conservative wing of the Party.
In her departure announcement, Snowe said she believes there is a vital need for a stronger political center “in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us. It is time for change in the way we govern.” In language similar to that used by Barney Frank when he announced his retirement in November, Snowe said, “I believe there are unique opportunities to build support for that change from outside the United States Senate. I intend to help give voice to my fellow citizens who believe, as I do, that we must return to an era of civility in government driven by a common purpose to fulfill the promise that is unique to America.”
Here’s hoping that both Snowe and Frank will find a way to continue to make their voices heard and to influence public policy and the national debate.
Linda Killian is a Washington journalist and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents was published in January 2012 by St. Martin's Press. Follow her on Twitter @lindajkillian.