Women

02.17.14

Olympia Snowe’s Next Chapter

Two years after leaving Washington, the Maine Republican wants to be the face of bipartisanship. Can she change Washington?

Senator Olympia Snowe is on the move and her agenda is bipartisanship. 

When Snowe announced two years ago that she would not be seeking Senate re-election in Maine, she sent a shockwave through Washington. Snowe, a long-time Republican, had been a vocal critic of extreme partisanship and gridlock in Congress, or what she describes as "an atmosphere of polarization" and "'my-way-or-the-highway' ideologies." Even as she departed, it was clear that although Snowe was leaving the Senate, she would not be leaving politics.

Since then, Snowe has embarked on an outside-in approach to shaping a more bipartisan Congress. She joined the Bipartisan Policy Center, released a book called “Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix The Stalemate in Congress” and launched Olympia's List, a fundraising tool for ideologically-center candidates.

Now, Snowe is bringing her message to the American public. Last week, Snowe delivered speeches at Rhode Island College and Brown University in which she detailed two crises in America: grave economic stagnancy and unprecedented levels of unproductivity and polarization in government. Snowe is adept at defining each problem. In her speech at Brown, she shared two particularly damning statistics. First, that of the eight occasions in which Congress has failed to pass a budget, seven have occurred since 2000, and four have occurred in the last term. Second, that in 1987 there were 57 senators who represented one party in their state but whose constituents voted for the presidential candidate of the opposing party. Today, there are only 21. Snowe explains with a grimace that "there are only 21 people who are willing to work across the political aisle...the other 79 don't want to take the risk to incur a potential primary challenge." And then there are the examples that speak for themselves: the ongoing debt ceiling debacle, 16-day government shutdown, the unemployment rate that stayed at more than 8 percent for almost four years.

Snowe urged audience members to keep their representatives more accountable, to make partisanship a top issue in the next primaries. And while Snowe was thorough in explaining the urgency of job creation and debt mitigation, she was notably silent on how bipartisanship might apply to social issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage, and reproductive rights.

Snowe certainly has the conviction to dismantle the party machine in Congress.  But she could stand to be more clear and specific in her public messaging about where and how her heralded solution of bipartisanship works.  Snowe urged audience members to keep their representatives more accountable, to bring attention to partisanship in the next primaries.  But if Snowe is going to make bipartisanship a top cause—not just for her political career but also for the American public—she needs to explain how it functions beyond the buzzwords of "consensus" and "compromise".  And while Snowe was thorough in explaining the urgency of job creation and debt mitigation, she was notably silent on how bipartisanship might look like in conflict on social issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage, and reproductive rights. 

It may be unfair to expect Snowe to have all the answers and it may be too early to completely evaluate where this next chapter of her career is headed. But she promises to keep speaking out. It will be worth following if and how her message evolves over time, especially as the next election cycle approaches and Congress continues to dwindle and dawdle.