I read Olympia Snowe’s statement on her retirement from the U.S. Senate with a sense of déjà vu. Over the years, I was fortunate enough to have close professional and sometimes personal relationships with many senators, and some of the best have expressed privately and, on occasion, publicly similar frustrations with our poisoned politics. Why do some of our best legislators decide to act on these reservations and leave, and what does it mean for our country?
When I got into politics in 1980, the Senate was populated with people named Bumpers, Goldwater, Ribicoff, Church, Kennedy, Heinz, Bradley, Warner and Moynihan. These men (one good change in the recent past is there are now women, too) somehow seem larger than today’s cast of characters, and I do not think this is the tendency of the codger to see the past as always better. Certainly, the system was less dominated by special interests and the constant fundraising and attack ads that so enervate the members and poison the process. There was more room for compromise, more time to get to know one another and more space to act in the national interest than in one’s narrower political needs.
That year was really the watershed year when attack ads and independent expenditures, among other common features of today’s campaigns, came on the scene in a significant way. From 1980 on, having just witnessed the defeat of nine incumbent senators, the ones who were left often felt forced to adopt the tactics of the ones who had arrived. The ’80s and ’90s were the years I was most active in campaigns, and I saw a number of my clients leave the Senate for some of the same reasons as Snowe. It was not that they feared losing; rather, they no longer saw the point of winning.
Snowe says she wants to effect change from outside the Senate and Washington. She might take as her model former Colorado senator Tim Wirth, who gave a very similar indictment of the political process when he left the Senate 20 years ago. (Interestingly, he was criticized then by some of his colleagues who felt nervous about the truth of what he said and were bound by the code of protecting the institution. But by 2012, most senators don’t care about Snowe’s decision because it doesn’t affect their personal political prospects; the institution has become secondary, with all apologies to former senator Robert Byrd.)
After his political career, Wirth, with Ted Turner’s huge grant, went on to organize and run the United Nations Foundation, which does important work on climate change, family planning and poverty, among other issues. (Disclosure: My firm has worked for UNF.) Wirth has found real meaning and made a real difference outside the political system. Here’s hoping the same for Sen. Snowe.