When Olympia Snowe made her farewell speech before the U.S. Senate, there was respectful coverage in Maine and around the nation. Snowe labored on as a moderate Republican long after that caucus seemed on its way to extinction. Snowe took stands — such as initial support for the Affordable Care Act — that her fellow Maine senator, Susan Collins, did not.
But in the end, Snowe voted against health-care reform along with every other Republican, bringing on a political crisis that was only resolved with the Supreme Court’s surprise decision upholding the AFA, and President Obama’s re-election.
Her farewell address, too, was disappointing. She deplored “partisanship,” as many do, without ever indicating that it’s her own party that’s mostly responsible for gridlock, or that moderates would normally consider it their duty to ameliorate Republicans’ increasingly hard-line positions.
As congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, a unique combination of right and left, put it in their recent book, "It’s Even Worse Than It Looks," the “partisan gridlock” everyone regrets is almost entirely due to the hijacking of one major party by the extreme right. In response to the biggest economic challenge in 80 years, the GOP stuck its collective head in the sand and did little more than proclaim the evils of taxes and deficits.
It was more than that. Republicans prevented any congressional action on global warming until huge storms battering our coastlines made such opposition untenable. They pretended that rounding up “illegals” could somehow resolve concerns over economic migrants across our borders.
But it was on taxes and fiscal policy that the Republican stance was — and is — most important, and most absurd. Anyone who’s spent time in politics can tell you it’s normal for both taxes and budgets to go up and down. It always depends upon whether the economy is humming along and producing more revenue, whether voters really want to cut government programs or whether they (occasionally) see public needs that would require new spending.
It was on the way to passage of the Affordable Care Act that things came unglued. Thanks to what we now know were calculated disruptions of congressional “town meetings” on health-care reform financed by right-wing donors, we saw the rise of the Tea Party, dedicated to the proposition that the federal government was creating an onslaught of new taxes.
The reality was, once again, the opposite. The largest part of President Obama’s stimulus bill consisted of payroll tax cuts and credits for low-income workers. Combined with the revenue reductions always associated with economic slumps, the proportion of the economy represented by federal taxes dropped to its lowest level in 60 years. We have unsustainably low levels of investment for everything from highways to alternative energy, but the sole problem, according to Republicans, is that taxes are too high.
And so Republicans ran on this idea in 2012 and came close to electing their nominee on a platform saying that however great a share of the national wealth the top 1 percent possesses, it must be national policy to give them more.
Thanks to the Tea Party, the contemporary GOP has declared taxes evil. The twisting and turning of House Speaker John Boehner, and his ultimate failure to convince his party to do anything about the “fiscal cliff” it manufactured, offered some grim amusement. But, it only confirms that Republicans are now incapable of contributing to a vital national debate.
When U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy reached the height of his notoriety in 1950, expounding on the largely imaginary problem of communists in government, he was opposed by another Republican, Maine’s Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who issued her “Declaration of Conscience” speech on the floor of the Senate. It was four long years before McCarthy fell, but Smith delivered the first check to his seemingly unstoppable course.
Six decades later, Olympia Snowe had her own opportunity to talk candidly, to use some of the political capital she’d earned over the years.
She could have said it’s time for Republican governors, including Maine’s, to stop resisting the Affordable Care Act and start implementing it. She could have said that, as a coastal state, Maine has a compelling interest in mitigating the effects of global warming. And she could have said that it’s time to accede to President Obama’s belief that a small number of rich people need to pay higher taxes, a conclusion most citizens arrived at long ago.
Margaret Chase Smith’s "Declaration of Conscience" speech set a high standard for Maine’s senators. It’s regrettable that Olympia Snowe didn’t hit the same mark.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.