Banter With the Beast

Olympia Snowe on Her New Book, Overcoming Partisanship & More

Snowe tells Lloyd Grove how she’s working to change Washington hyperpartisanship from the outside.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

After Olympia Snowe’s four decades in elected office, including 18 years in the U.S. Senate, it would be bad manners to call her politically naive.

Yet the 66-year-old moderate Republican from Maine—who announced her retirement from the Senate last year with a bitter blast at hyperpartisanship and Washington dysfunction—sounds astonishingly uncynical, even hopeful, as she lays out her scheme to coax her former colleagues in Congress to stop misbehaving.

“The only way to change the dynamic, unless something miraculous happens, is from the outside. It will happen when the public demands accountability,” Snowe tells me. “My aim is to get the public to make those phone calls and get the lawmakers’ attention. Because it isn’t about me. It’s about the country, and how you change the polarizing dynamic that so infuses political discourse in Washington and so impedes attempts to get things done.”

Her new book, Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress, prescribes a series of miracle cures. They include five-day workweeks to allow Democrats and Republicans to get to know each other as human beings (and dock their pay when they don’t clock in); the elimination of a hallowed Senate tradition that gives individual members the power to place secret holds on legislation and thus block the process anonymously without risking blame; a provision denying lawmakers a paycheck when, as frequently occurs in the Senate, they don’t pass a budget; the outlawing of so-called leadership PACs that permit members to raise and distribute millions in campaign cash to colleagues; and several additional equally improbable remedies to break the gridlock. They will all be extremely difficult to enact.

“The wheels can come apart pretty quickly,” Snowe notes. She says that since leaving the Senate in January, instead of taking some well-deserved R&R, she’s been working “seven days a week” to finish her book, giving speeches evangelizing for her consensus-building vision, and holding down a job as a salaried senior fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank focused on the rosy goal of “principled solutions through rigorous analysis, reasoned negotiation, and respectful dialogue.”

In other words, she’s pursuing the polar opposite of the way business is usually done nowadays in the nation’s capital. The sour events of the past week are a stark example, as Republicans and Democrats trade partisan insults and fault each other’s motives over the Benghazi talking points and the burgeoning scandal at the Internal Revenue Service. Yet Snowe experiences bouts of cockeyed optimism.

“Did you see how they responded to the furloughing of the air-traffic controllers?” she asks with a laugh, referring to the overwhelming House and Senate votes three weeks ago to reverse sequester-related budget cuts that were causing massive flight delays. “That’s because they were going to face the wrath of their constituents sitting on a plane.” Not that a dollop of self-interest wasn’t involved; the congresspeople were desperate to get out of town.

“They were facing their constituents sitting on the same tarmacs as they were,” Snowe says. “They’ll act when the public speaks out, and that’s the point ... I want to build a groundswell of support and get the public to weigh in, because that’s the only way you’re going to alter the legislative landscape in Washington. Now I’m fighting in a different direction. I’m fighting on the outside.”

Stating the obvious, she adds: “It’s not going to be one person in the United States Senate. Even if I were still there, there aren’t enough Olympia Snowes to change views and votes.”

In her book, Snowe, who was 26 when she won her first husband Peter Snowe’s seat in the Maine Legislature after he was killed in an automobile accident, describes an inexorable deterioration in cross-party relations from the time she was elected to the House in 1978 to the day she fled the Senate a little over four months ago. (She’s been married for the last 24 years to former Maine governor Jock McKernan.)

She writes that in the late 1990s, when Democrat Tom Daschle and Republican Trent Lott were alternating as Senate majority leader and minority leader, depending on which party won the election, they spoke to each other constantly, even installing a hotline in their offices for instant communication. And today?

The rapport between Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is as distant as it is adversarial, Snowe says.

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“I wouldn’t sense there’s a whole lot” of communication, Snowe confides. “Once in a while, yeah. Maybe. You would have to ask them, but I would say not very much.” She explains: “The two leaders have to communicate with one another, at the end of the day. This is what is really essential to making the United States Senate work.”

Although she remains a loyal Republican, and plans on backing the GOP nominee in 2016, Snowe says she hopes Hillary Clinton, a friend from the Senate, decides to run for president.

“Obviously, that’s her decision, but she’d be highly capable,” Snowe says. “It would be great for the country for her to run.”

She indicated that Republican assaults on the former secretary of State for the much-maligned government spin concerning the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, miss the point: namely, ensuring the safety and security of U.S. diplomats abroad.

“Frankly,” Snowe says, “discussions of those [talking points] do deflect from the central issue: how did this [the deaths of four U.S. embassy personnel] occur?”