4 Reasons Olympia Snowe Was Right to Leave Congress

Former Maine Senator Olympia Snowe caused a stir last year with her announcement that she would not run for re-election in 2012, ending her nearly 20-year career in the U.S. Senate. Last week’s release of Snowe’s new book, Fighting for Common Ground, reignited criticism that the moderate Republican — a rarity in Congress — should have stayed in her position to work toward fixing the stalemate from the inside. Snowe’s book looks at that very issue, examining the gridlock in Congress and offering possible ways to fix it.  

A Republican of the old-fashioned conservative stripe, rather than the Tea Party brand that has dominated the GOP in recent years, Snowe has broken with the party line on key issues such as abortion rights and oil drilling in Alaska, and helped craft bipartisan health care legislation. While it’s true the Senate needs more moderate politicians who are willing to compromise, Snowe was right to leave. As she told NPR’s David Greene, “I began thinking about my role and how I could best contribute … I had to get out to make — force change on the outside.” Here are just a few reasons Snowe will be more effective outside the Senate than in it:

1. We need a new strategy.

Our current legislators have proven themselves too embroiled in obstructionist politics to change on their own. In her appearance The Daily Show last week, Snowe told Jon Stewart, “I talk to my colleagues, and what I say in the book is nothing different than what I would say to [them].”

That approach hasn’t gotten very far. More moderate, and fewer partisan, politicians in power are vital to break the gridlock, but they may be a secondary step. It’s time to see what we can accomplish outside the strictures of Congressional dysfunction.

2. A big name can ignite change.

Snowe’s position as a former Senator has already brought major media coverage to her collaboration with the Bipartisan Policy Center, and her name brings important publicity to their work. A quick perusal of the BPC’s website shows that in just a few weeks, Snowe has appeared on The View, NPR, MSNBC Morning News, and the Charlie Rose Show, and more. That kind of promotion is absolutely vital to get people involved and to achieve liftoff for real change.

3. People need alternatives to cynicism.

If anything is going to shift in Congress, it will have to start with citizens prepared to vocalize and fight for it. The publicity Snowe has garnered for the BPC advertises opportunities for individuals to engage with and actively work to change their representation — rather than sink further into frustration, disdain, and cynicism. Groups like the BPC, with their Citizens for Political Reform initiative, challenge the notion that nothing can be done, and that Congress is too far gone for us to make a difference. Democracy is a powerful, astonishing force, but it requires active civic engagement to feed it: it doesn’t just run on its own.   

4. We need leaders who can make a national impact.

As a senator from a small state, Snowe’s impact was important in her region, but limited nationally. If a moderate Republican is engaging with citizens on a national scale, she may plant a seed that sparks a shift in the GOP. (Democrats are hardly blameless in the Congressional stalemate, but Republicans have been especially notorious: During Snowe’s Daily Show interview, Stewart cited Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s 2009 comment that, “We will deny this president bipartisanship. We will not give him that”). The Tea Party began as a grassroots movement and swung the momentum of the entire party. The opposite can also happen, but it has to come from committed citizens and strong leaders like Snowe.