Moderate Republicanism, a tradition with roots going back to the party’s founding, officially died Tuesday, with the decision of Maine Senator Olympia Snowe to quit at the end of her current term.
Snowe was not a liberal, but nor was she a conservative. She occupied a reasoned middle ground that allowed her to work across lines of partisanship and ideology for decades. But on Tuesday she stole the thunder from the pathetic exercise that is the Republican presidential contest and made some really big political news.
In a stinging rebuke to her party and to the Congress, Snowe announced that she would forgo the prospect of re-election to a fourth term in a Senate that she argued is dysfunctional—and is not likely to improve.
“After 33 years in the Congress this was not an easy decision. My husband and I are in good health. We have laid an exceptionally strong foundation for the campaign, and I have no doubt I would have won re-election,” the 67-year-old Snowe announced Tuesday night.
“Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term. So at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate, which is what a fourth term would entail.”
Snowe is right that she would probably have been re-elected. Indeed, the greatest threat to the popular senator would have been in a GOP primary, not in the fall general election.
Snowe is also right that the Senate is a pit of petty partisanship, and that it is likely to remain so.
The senator had little potential to improve the circumstance because her brand of moderate Republicanism, once so influential, can now only seek compromises that leave no one satisfied. And with Snowe gone, moderate Republicanism will cease to be a meaningful force even for compromise. The senator’s supposed moderate allies, Maine Republican Susan Collins and Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, are mere pretenders who lack Snowe’s statute and strength.
With Snowe gone, the center will not hold. Collins and Brown will disappear into the corporate abyss that is the modern Republican Party.
But that does not mean that the Senate will be harmed. While pundits and pontificators will weigh the meaning and import of Snowe’s exit for some time, the fact is that she could well be replaced by a dynamic senator with a record as an effective legislator and the potential to emerge as a progressive leader in the Senate.