“Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term,” Snowe said. “So at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate.”
Snowe has made a reputation, over 33 years in Congress, as someone eager to build political bridges between moderates from both parties. But in recent years, she has become an increasingly isolated voice in a Congress hobbled by partisan gridlock.
Given her continued popularity, her retirement is a rebuke to the partisanship that has come to define the political times in Washington. Snowe’s willingness to compromise and work with the other side has frequently put her out of step with her party, and Democrats have often looked to her as one of the Republicans willing to break ranks with the GOP leadership. Snowe’s reputation as a moderate has grown as fewer and fewer senators on either side of the aisle have been willing to take bipartisan actions.
But it has also become harder to get elected by advocating moderation and compromise. In recent years, Republican senators in particular have been under pressure from tea party elements in their party to abandon the middle or face primary challenges from the right.
In a sign of the increasingly unique place Snowe holds in the Senate, President Obama issued a statement Tuesday evening praising his former Senate colleague. “Senator Snowe’s career demonstrates how much can be accomplished when leaders from both parties come together to do the right thing for the American people,” he said.
Snowe’s rebuke of partisanship in Washington at a time when her personal popularity is high in Maine should put both parties on notice. As Ezra Klein reported:
According to the Voteview ideological ranking system, the most moderate Democratic senator in the 112th Congress — that’s this session, for those keeping track — is Nebraska’s Ben Nelson. The most moderate Republican senator is Maine’s Olympia Snowe. And as of today, they’re both retiring.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. For years, our increasingly polarized political system has been culling moderate members. To see this in video form, click the clip below. It’s a visualization of congressional polarization beginning with the very first Congress and running right through today. And if you fast forward toward the end, where we are, you’ll see the pattern progress right in front of you: The Ds and the Rs in the middle — those are the centrists — keep disappearing, and the masses of Ds and Rs keep moving farther away from each other.