Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine surprised the political world Tuesday with the announcement that she will not seek a fourth term in the U.S. Senate. The decision puts what was considered a safe seat for Republicans into play, and possibly the best potential for Democrats to pick up a seat from Republicans.
Republicans have looked at Senate takeover to ensure a newly elected President would not be saddled with Congressional gridlock. Republicans need 4 seats to attain a majority. Only 10 Republican Senators are up for re-election, while the Democrats will play defense on 23 seats.
Despite the unneeded speed bump placed in the Republicans path to a Senate majority, many conservatives have reacted with a “good riddance” attitude to the announcement. Snowe, along with her counterpart from Maine Senator Susan Collins, are among the Republican caucus’ least reliable members when party line votes are cast.
Snowe herself cited the partisan rancor that is not likely to subside in the near future as the primary reason she was not willing to commit to six more years in Washington. Real Clear Politics quotes her as saying “I do find it frustrating, however, that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies [have] become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.”
As one of the members in the Senate most likely to work across the aisle, Snowe has frustrated movement conservatives who believe that not holding a party line is tantamount to treason. They tend to point to Senators such as South Carolina’s Jim Demint as the prototype of their favorite non-compromiser de jour. They usually overlook the fact that Demint hails from uber-conservative South Carolina. Maine is not exactly South Carolina, and Maine Politics is about as similar to that of South Carolina as each state’s weather.
Zell Miller wrote the book “A National Party No More”, warning Democrats that their policies, values, and insistence that all Democrats match the policies of people in New York and Los Angeles were ending their viability to attract candidates and voters in much of the country. Perhaps Miller should pen an equally prescient warning to Republicans as they seek to purge all that do not speak the language of Republicans with a southern accent.
When Republicans became serious about building a majority party during the eighties and nineties, phrases such as “big tent” and “winning the hearts and minds” were operational battle cries. Ronald Reagan was quite proud to have his “Reagan Democrats” as part of the coalition that propelled him to victory, a group that even included a formal endorsement from the Teamsters.
Republicans in the 80’s and 90’s were much hungrier for victories than today. A forty year stint as the minority party will do that to you. Today, however, Republicans live with the contrast that they were “fired for cause” in 2006, only to return to a House Majority in 2010 and have a respectable shot at adding the White House and Senate in 2012. Lessons learned the hard way as the minority party are quickly forgotten with the arrogance and entitlement of majority status.
Yet math remains math, and retaining the majority requires 50% plus one vote. The math of primaries, however, favors the most unrelenting hardline positions be adopted. It is generally assumed that the other party will also favor an opposite extreme position, leaving voters in the center being volleyed between parties not as much in support, but as those running away from the positions of the last created majority.
Republicans at the national level face a stark choice. They can either understand that all Republicans are not created from the same political bases, and issues that play well with the Southern base are themselves insufficient to build a lasting national majority. Or, they may continue to try and purge those who do not fit within a pre-determined regional mold and ensure a uniformly principled party – one with a minority status.
Republicans are quick to quote Ronald Reagan when it serves their purpose, and even mis-quote him if necessary. Yet they don’t like being reminded of the Reagan Democrats, nor the line that an 80% friend is not the enemy. Republicans need to think long and hard about being a big tent, winning hearts and minds, and finding many more 80% friends rather than purging them.