Losing Olympia Snowe


Sen. Olympia Snowe announced her decision not to run for re-election this fall. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

If only the same could be said today. Snowe is, of course, a role model—a long-serving Republican who has held fast to her independent streak and mentored incoming women. She has been a powerful voice for women’s rights, and a powerful vote in Congress, as her middle-of-the-road viewpoint left her courted from both sides.

She was one of just three Republicans to support President Obama’s economic stimulus bill. She is for abortion rights, even if most in her party are staunchly against them. She voted against the 2003 Bush tax cuts and criticized the size of the package, calling it “disconcerting to have the deficit financing long-term tax cuts” at the time. (She did, however, vote for an extension in 2011.) And although she ultimately voted against the president’s health-care bill, her vote was wooed obsessively by Democrats, making her influential in the outcome of the final bill.  

Still, something tells me today’s incoming GOP freshmen don’t aspire to be the same kind of leader. Snowe decided not to run for re-election again because she does not “realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.” Sadly, she is right: The parties are becoming further and further apart on issues, and moderates on either side of the aisle, especially the right, are dropping out and becoming more and more rare.

What Snowe’s departure has made me wonder, however, is what good her stepping aside does to improve cooperation and mend the partisan divide in Congress. You can’t blame someone who is 65 and has served more than 30 years in Washington for deciding that it’s time to hang it up, especially amid today’s circus. But if this is something she’d like to change—or at least help to keep from getting worse—it would best be led from within. By all accounts, Snowe would have won re-election, and she said Tuesday that she and her husband are both in good health.

Her departure may be a boon for Democrats, as it leaves open a likely pick-up in the Senate at a time when Republicans are aggressively trying to win a majority. But cheering the news is short-term thinking that does not consider the chilling effect Snowe’s exit will have on future moderate leaders on either side. Without Snowe—or the five other moderates who have decided not to seek re-election this year—few remain to inspire new centrists on either side to step forward. 

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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