When I first heard about the retirement of United States Senator Olympia Snowe (Republican – Maine), my immediate reaction was one of dismay and sympathy. She was driven from Congress by what she characterized as a political environment too polarized to yield effective governance. Snowe’s departure embodied much of the sentiment felt by millions of Americans who saw the 2010 midterm victories of far-right Tea Party Republicans as marking the death knell of compromise and civility in American politics. Indeed, throughout her 17-year career in the Senate, Snowe has garnered praise from hardline ideologues on both the right and left of the political spectrum, and has been lauded for her ability to work across the aisle and dispel the notion that partisan divides are irreconcilable. But make no mistake about it; for the past four years Olympia Snowe has been anything but moderate. Serving as a pawn in a Congress full of apostles of the radical right, Snowe’s fame as a centrist legislator is possibly the biggest diversion in Washington today.
In many ways, the canonization of Olympia Snowe as a moderate reads like an epitaph of the Republican Party. Many older Republicans who remember the days of Eisenhower and the even more politically conservative Nixon (who proposed universal healthcare through private employers and government subsidies) feel that today’s GOP has left them behind. The rise of social conservatism that began with the 1964 Republican presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater and took off with Ronald Reagan has overshadowed the traditional Republican focus on jobs and the economy, and the belief that a rising tide lifts all ships and that bringing about such prosperity necessitates minimal government interference. This naturally begs the question: how does a woman like Snowe, heralded for her prowess at negotiation and level-headed thinking, incur the moniker of right-wing policy maker? The answer lies in her voting record.
Those who bemoan the retirement of Senator Snowe as marking an end to compromise in America’s upper chamber and Congress as a whole would do well to remember that since the inauguration of Barack Obama in January of 2009, Snowe has voted in lockstep with her much more conservative-minded colleagues. While having stated that she looked forward to working with President Obama on healthcare policy, her vote against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which allows children to stay on their parents’ healthcare plans until the age of 26 and bans insurance companies from denying health care to anyone based on a preexisting condition, was a reflection of her values and those of the Republican Party as a whole. When faced with the easiest of political wins, she and every other Senate Republican voted against giving health care to 9/11 first responders, instead choosing to prioritize tax breaks for wealthy Americans. Following in the same vein, she joined her GOP colleagues in voting against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, designed to ensure equal pay for equal work and initially opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prevented LGBTQ Americans from serving openly in the military, changing her vote only when public opinion and a lame duck Congress gave her the opportunity to escape political scrutiny. She also contributed to the first credit downgrade in American history by originally voting against raising the debt ceiling, causing a furor that highlighted the destructiveness of political brinksmanship.
In an age where compromise is seen as a dirty word, where ideology is valued above efficiency, and where partisan loyalties count for more than civility, it’s easy to become nostalgic at the mention of anyone who appears to retain some shred of level-headed decency and objective analytical thought. For many Americans, Snowe represented the hope of a more cultured and sophisticated discourse. But before we sanctify the last of perceived Republican moderation, it is essential that we understand that today’s GOP is no longer the party of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, and Specter, but a politically-charged, divisive faction that seeks to take America back to a time of institutionalized discrimination, to a condition in which government provided no protection from the destructive populism of organized bigotry.
Daniel Braden is a U3 Political Science student and member of Democrats Abroad. He also dabbles in satire through his blog McGill Memes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.