The news came on the final day of February and didn't last long in Arkansas, didn't make a lot of waves. The story should have lasted much longer and made a lot of waves. U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, announced she would not seek another term, would end her Washington career after 34 years despite near-certain re-election. The what was important, the why more so.
The news came on the final day of February and didn’t last long in Arkansas, didn’t make a lot of waves. The story should have lasted much longer and made a lot of waves. U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, announced she would not seek another term, would end her Washington career after 34 years despite near-certain re-election. The what was important, the why more so.
“I do find it frustrating that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions,” Snowe said in announcing her retirement. “Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.”
As one of the Senate’s few remaining Republican moderates, Snowe was long accustomed to crossing the aisle to cut deals with Democrats, not infrequently voting against her party’s wishes to advance legislation she believed was in the nation’s best interest. Her reward, increasingly, has been near-ostracization by the GOP leadership and opprobrium as a “R.I.N.O” — Republican in Name Only — by the rank-and-file.
“The Senate will be a lesser place with her gone,” says her Democratic former colleague from Arkansas, David Pryor. “Olympia was always thoughtful, she never gave in to the cries of the far right or the far left. She was studious, did her homework, came to the committee meetings. She took the job very seriously.”
Pryor’s retirement from the Senate 16 years ago was prompted to no small extent by the partisan atmospherics Snowe cited, the unending knife fight between right and left that has made compromise a filthy word and made gridlock the seeming objective. He had gone to the Senate in 1979, hoping to find the bi-partisan comity he had witnessed as a teenaged page, an environment in which Democrats and Republicans could politely challenge one another on the floor, then come to agreement over an after-hours beer or during dinner at an adversary’s home. “I’m afraid those days are gone,” Pryor sighs.
Their disappearance is the theme of Ira Shapiro’s important new book, The Last Great Senate, a lament for lost fraternity — and lost opportunity.
“The evidence is pretty clear that it’s the relentless move of the Republicans to the right, to make the senate a much more partisan forum,” Shapiro said in a telephone interview. So, says Shapiro, are the results, “especially when a Democrat is president. (Barack) Obama became president at a time of national economic crisis yet got no support from Republicans, none. “Our system depends on some degree of cooperation by the minority party. That’s what made the ‘Great Senate’ work, and that’s been completely lacking.”
“Nobody doubted that (Everett) Dirksen, (Howard) Baker, (Hugh) Scott and (Bob) Dole at his best — nobody doubted they were Republicans but they managed to work with Democrats in the national interest,” Shapiro continued. “There’s no evidence (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell and his immediate predecessors are doing that. McConnell obviously is a very capable GOP leader but I don’t think he’s a Senate leader, not in its best tradition. All of us were shocked when he said his top priority was getting rid of Obama.”
The job of senator, whichever party, is exponentially more difficult today, Shapiro agrees — the Supreme Court has blown the lid off campaign finance; political technology, including social media, has made playing to extremism vastly easier; and the willingness of senators to employ the rules (even the threat of a filibuster now short-circuits action) to halt the business of government for partisan ends has made a debacle of “the Club.” “But that doesn’t excuse them from rising above it,” Shapiro argues.
Pryor, whose attempt to abolish “holds,” by which a single senator can block a presidential appointment “got bogged down,” is wistful, pessimistic where Shapiro demands we be optimistic.
“The center,” Pryor says, “has been hollowed out.”
Arkansas, and the nation, is paying a steep price.
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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.