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On Olympia Snowe’s Retirement, Americans Elect and Bipartisan Fetishism

Olympia Snowe’s surprise announcement that she wouldn’t seek re-election to the Senate in Maine was so unexpected (she didn’t even tell her own staff), that it left every political figure in the state scrambling. You need a minimum of 2,000 certified signatures to get on the primary ballot, and the deadline is in just two weeks. That goes for the House elections as well, and since there’s a high probability that one or both of Maine’s Democratic House members (Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree) might take a stab at the Senate race, this comes into play as well.

So outside of being a selfish politician (and you can never go wrong with that analysis), why did Snowe subject the state to such turmoil? Jon Chait has a hunch that Snowe will join up with Americans Elect, the odd collection of centrists pushing a third-party candidate for President. He cites her statement that “It is time for change in the way we govern, and I believe there are unique opportunities to build support for that change from outside the United States Senate.” Building support does not equal running as a Presidential candidate, but since Americans Elect seems to be the place where wankers go to retire (see David Boren), I grant that this could be in Snowe’s future.

The question would be what problem Olympia Snowe or David Boren becoming President would solve. Snowe herself, in her statement of retirement, cited the unending partisanship in Congress. “[W]hat I have had to consider is how productive an additional term would be […] Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.” I cannot think of how electing some third-party establishmentarian would do anything to change that dynamic, either. And you would think Snowe knows that as well.

The parties had a jumbled ideological set in the 1950s and 1960s, when the civil rights movement hadn’t reached full flower, and Democrats still had a rump Southern faction. That has largely ended, and we have a completely ideologically consistent party on the right, and another party on the left with some ideological consistency along with a greater range. But the most conservative Democrats still sits to the left of the most liberal Republican.

The truth about American politics today isn’t that the parties don’t agree about very much – actually, they agree about quite a bit, even if Republicans will do their best to disavow any knowledge of this agreement as soon as Democrats come along to their side (e.g., the entire Obama tenure in office). The real truth about American politics is that they shouldn’t agree. There are plenty of differing viewpoints about how to run the country. How this works almost everywhere is that those ideas play out in elections, and the winner gets to implement their agenda, and the public can process that, see if they like the result, and vote to ratify it or move in a different direction. We have a Parliamentary level of partisanship in a Presidential system with lots of veto points. This is a recipe for paralysis.

What won’t fix that? People like Olympia Snowe, the moderate preeners that ask everyone to “come together” for the common good. Because Snowe already tried this in the Senate, and she failed utterly. She signed her name to the amicus brief calling the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. This was legislation she voted for in the Senate Finance Committee. Snowe exhibited no boldness and no examples of being “above politics” on the crucial issues. She fell in line, even though there was no challenge to her from the Tea Party in Maine with two weeks to go. She did so either because of the pursuit of power institutionally, or for other obscure reasons. But she did not show anything resembling courage in her Senate career, at least over the past several years.

What does fix this? Removing some of the veto points that have reduced accountability. Ending the electoral college and first-past-the-post Congressional representation and the filibuster are examples of this. Letting our moderate betters determine the “little of this, little of that” wise moderate course for the nation is not such an example. In fact, it’s the course that the country has been on for a good part of the last 20 years. And it’s led to failure.

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David Dayen

David Dayen