When Olympia Snowe gave her farewell address to the Senate last week it signaled not only the end of a long, distinguished political career but ominously for the nation, the possible end of an era in US politics.
Snowe was part of a centrist group of senators from both parties who worked together on issues and did not always vote the way their party leaders desired.
Independence and cooperation have been on the wane in Congress for a number of years as the ranks of centrist members, especially on the Republican side, have thinned. Sadly, neither virtue seems to be much valued by the Republican and Democratic leaders who call the shots on Capitol Hill.
One only need look at the mess that is the stalled fiscal cliff negotiations to see that neither compromise nor legislating are very high on their priority list. Political posturing, playing to their party base and point scoring have become far more important, to the detriment of the nation.
In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, there seems to be a growing collective sense that the time for partisan games is over and that our political leaders must find a way to address serious issues.
Earlier this fall, I spent some time talking with Snowe about this situation and about her decision to leave the Senate.
“There’s a huge chasm between reality in the rest of America and the fantasy world we’re living in here. We’re in a world of pretend on the floor of the Senate,” Snowe told me.
“We’re supposed to be here to rise to the highest levels of leadership and focus on the nation’s most important issues.” Instead, she said what exists is the “exploitation of division that drives political and party agendas but does nothing to solve the problems of the country”.
Snowe has served as a legislator for 40 years, first in Maine and then in the US House before her election to the Senate in 1994 and says she has never witnessed anything as dysfunctional as the current Congress.
Gone are the days when legislators like Daniel Webster, Margaret Chase Smith, Jim Jeffords, or Ted Kennedy could give rousing and impassioned speeches on the Senate floor but also craft landmark legislation that included compromises with colleagues on the other side of the aisle.
“We’ve miniaturized the Senate,” Snowe observed.
“We’re not doing anything … It’s stunning really… All we’re doing is debating messaging points for the next election and the next political ad. Messaging isn’t doing anything to bring the country together.”
In her farewell address on the Senate floor, Snowe cited an academic study confirming that this is the most partisan, dysfunctional Congress since the end of Reconstruction, 135 years ago.
“I worry we are losing the art of legislating. And when the history of this chapter in the Senate is written, we don’t want it to conclude it was here that it became an antiquated practice.”
Snowe warned her colleagues to be mindful that what is most important “is not about what’s in the best interests of a single political party, but what’s in the best interests of our country.”
When I asked Snowe if she was sad to be leaving the Senate I found her answer rather ominous. “I came to the realistic conclusion that things wouldn’t change in the short term … I just didn’t want to be here and not be able to solve problems.”
Snowe will continue to make a significant contribution to public life. Her projects include writing a book; starting a political action committee called Olympia’s List to support women candidates and launching The Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute in Maine.
But she will leave the Senate with our collective fiscal future unresolved and no clear path forward for solutions to any of the biggest challenges facing the nation.
An early December Gallup poll showed that 70 percent of those questioned think Republicans and Democrats should both compromise on taxes and spending to reach agreement and avoid taking the nation off the fiscal cliff.
In the days following the election lawmakers paid lip service to this idea but whatever small post-election bipartisan glow existed has long since faded into the same old political posturing and stalemate.
“The American people are going to have to think about who they’re voting for and reward those politicians willing to work together and penalize those who don’t,” Snowe asserts.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Linda Killian, is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents.” Follow her on Twitter @lindajkillian.