Olympia Snowe has it all Wrong

Before the ink was dry on the press release alerting the media and her colleagues that she was retiring after three terms in the United States Senate, journalists and bloggers were busily penning posts and pieces lamenting her loss as more evidence that bipartisan Washington was dead. With all due respect to the retiring Senator, she has it all wrong. Senator Snowe has reasoned that because the “sensible center” has disappeared from the legislative branch, specifically the Senate, that there is no longer “political reward for consensus building.” As such, she has chosen to retire rather than to fight. The fact of the matter is that consensus building and compromise can not exist in an environment where one side refuses to negotiate. Moreover, when that same side becomes entrenched in support of ideas and policies that are objectively ridiculous, there is no middle ground on which to stand.

Ms. Snowe also misplaces the blame for the current state of affairs at the feet of both parties. While I do not generally believe that either party can legitimately represent the interests of the people in the current money-driven system we entertain as effective today, the road to the complete loss of consensus building has hardly been paved with equal bricks from each party. Take for example Ms. Snowe’s insistence that she pleaded with President Obama to reach across the aisle in 2009 while the $800 billion stimulus package was being drafted and negotiated. At the time, the Democrats had an overwhelming majority in the Senate and a sizable majority in the House, yet the President had to adjure support from three Republicans in the Senate to pass a measure already stripped down of large chunks of spending that the vast majority of sapient economists believed would actually create or save jobs. The bill included nearly as much in tax cuts as it did in “spending,” yet not a single member of the House Republican Caucus voted to support it. Where exactly was Mr. Obama supposed to look to build this mystical “consensus” Ms. Snowe refers to? Would it have taken 100% tax cuts and a measure to exempt all corporations from assessments for a decade to secure a few Republican votes? The fact of the matter is that the Republican Party had made conscious decision following the 2008 election to oppose any measure that would stimulate the economy, unless forced into support by overwhelming public consensus.

Ms. Snowe also opined that the Affordable Care Act was in essence jammed down her throat with little explanation of certain provisions. As such, she had no choice but to oppose the measure. This is simply not the case. The entire piece of legislation was stalled for an extraordinary period of time while the President and Democrats in the Senate frustratingly attempted to win the support of Ms. Snowe, and her fellow Republican Senator from Maine, Susan Collins. Moreover, Ms. Snowe’s reticence is underscored by the fact that it has been widely reported that the bulk of what was contained in the legislation itself originated from Republican think-tanks and Republican legislators and intellectuals. Again, who does Ms. Snowe speculate that Mr. Obama was to meet in the “sensible middle?” The truth is that the President spent the bulk of his time negotiating with Democrats like Ben Nelson and others, who wanted give-backs for their own states. Ultimately, not a single Republican Senator voted  for the act. Quite frankly, I don’t believe there was any offer of compromise short of imploding the effectiveness of the legislation that would have attracted Ms. Snowe’s vote. Where is the middle ground when the compromise offered, most of which benefited the corporations that Republicans generally support, was not able to rustle-up a single vote? If anything, Ms. Snowe is simply soured by the fact that at some point the President simply gave up and walked away from her, leaving her out of the debate entirely.

The retiring Senator also believes that Mr. Obama dropped the ball on deficit reduction by refusing to bring the findings of the Bowles-Simpson commission up for debate. She claims that the President rejected the findings out of hand. Again, she is mistaken. First, the President publicly acknowledged much of what the commission recommended. However, it became clear that in order to negotiate on any of the sensible recommendations, Medicare and Social Security would have to be on the table for Republicans to take a seat. Moreover, the Republicans remained steadfastly opposed to any new taxes or any new revenue generating fees in order to lessen the blow. This placed the President in the position of having to some degree not only compromise his integrity, but also programs that millions of Americans depend upon. Most economists agree that the reason for the failure of the United States economy to recover more quickly following this recession as compared to recessions past, is that the government has been unwilling to raise revenues and borrow significant sums in order to replace the demand gap left by deleveraging and unemployment. The Republicans were and are opposed to both, and refused to even negotiate if the President placed either up for debate.

The cold hard reality is that Ms. Snowe is correct, the sensible middle is gone from the United States Senate. However, blame is not properly paced equally at the feet of the Democratic and Republican parties. While the Democratic Party is certainly not without blame, it has bent over backwards in the recent past to befriend Wall Street and major corporations generally, while remained somewhat firm on social issues and so-called entitlements. The problem in the United States Senate is Ms. Snowe’s own party. There is simply no way to find a sensible point of compromise when one side refuses to negotiate. Claims that the Democrats refuse to meet her in the middle are simply false and disingenuous. Take for example the JOBS Act that recently passed with overwhelming Democratic and Republican support. A piece of legislation that runs counter to the economic ideology of the Democratic Party. The act is almost certain to result in fraud, most of which will come at the expense of small investors. Moreover, the act provides incentives to companies with revenues of $1 billion, hardly a core Democratic constituency. The recently passed  National Defense Authorization Act is also replete with provisions anathema to traditional Democratic Party values, as is the amended Patriot Act, and numerous other pieces of legislation passed with Democratic Support over just the past decade.

We need not hearken back to yesteryear to extirpate Ms. Snowe’s theory. President Bush was able to convince twelve Democrats to support the sweeping and irresponsible tax cuts passed in 2001. President Bush was also able to rally Democrats to support several other pieces of controversial legislation. For example, President Bush was able to negotiate the support of ten Democrats to cross party-lines and support his Medicare Part D proposal. Moreover, due to several Republican defections on the legislation, the bill would not have passed without Democratic support. The Democrats in the Senate also stood with the President on a cloture vote of  61-39, with Democrat Ron Wyden riding in to rescue the President at the final hour. Just three years later the Republicans uniformly refused to work with Democrats in an effort to limit the hundreds of billions of dollars the prescription drug benefit would add to the long-term deficit. Furthermore, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Democrats rallied around President Bush and Republican measures to inhibit civil liberties, the bulk of which was opposed by a majority of the Democratic Base.

Democrats also worked closely with Republicans during the Clinton Administration. Democratic Senators worked with Republicans to bring an end to the consumer protections of the Glass-Steagall Act with the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act. Democrats offered an olive branch of compromise when negotiating welfare reform. Bill Clinton worked closely with Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott in fashioning welfare reform legislation, that although more conservative that the Democratic base found acceptable, passed with Republican support. Democrats likewise worked closely with Republicans in dismantling commodities futures and derivatives trading regulation with the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. Democrats also worked closely with President George H.W. Bush in passing civil rights legislation to protect the disabled and increased funding for education.

This has not been the case between President Obama and the Republicans in the Senate, who have all but remained a united front in opposition to almost anything that he proposes, even if  such proposal is based upon ideas first championed by the Republican Party. If Ms. Snow truly wishes to convey her forthrightness concerning the legislative mood of the United States Senate, she would be well served to speak truthfully to the American People. The current caustic relationship between Democrats and Republicans in the chamber is primarily a function of the radicalization of the Republican Party, and it is irresponsible of Ms. Snowe to confuse the public with her assertion that each side shares equal responsibility. Ms. Snowe could preserve her self-conveyed legacy of “peacemaker” she clearly covets by simply calling out her own party in a mature and dignified fashion.