'Snowe Tires'

Neo-Neocon looks at Maine Republican Olympia Snowe's surprise announcement that she's stepping down from Congress and writes, "One can’t help but suspect that Ms. Snowe’s motive has something to do with anger and something to do with revenge and goes a bit like this: 'You think I’m a RINO and don’t appreciate me much? Well, get a load of my replacement. Miss me yet?'

In his latest Best of the Web column, James Taranto adds:

The Snowe seat isn't a sure pickup for the Democrats, but Sabato lists it as "leans D," the only currently Republican seat where Democratic prospects are better than even. If the Democrats do take the seat, it will be bad for Republicans, for obvious reasons.

It will also be bad for conservatives, though it's a loss they won't particularly regret. Snowe frequently crossed party lines, most recently in providing a decisive vote (along with fellow Maine Lady Susan Collins and then-Republican Arlen Specter) in favor of President Obama's 2009 so-called stimulus. On the other hand, she supported the confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito and voted against ObamaCare. An unreliable conservative vote is better than a reliable liberal one, which a Democratic successor would almost certainly provide.

It strikes us, however, that Snowe's departure won't be much of a loss for the country. In her retirement announcement, the senator portrayed herself as a victim of "partisanship" (in the same vein as David Brooks's silly column, which we noted yesterday):

With my Spartan ancestry I am a fighter at heart; and I am well prepared for the electoral battle, so that is not the issue. However, what I have had to consider is how productive an additional term would be. Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term. 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, which is what a fourth term would entail.

As I enter a new chapter, I see a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us.

But how "vital" is the "center," really? In 2006, Time named Snowe one of "America's 10 best senators." The magazine credited her with helping to forge or force compromises both procedural (the 2005 "Gang of 14" agreement on judicial filibusters) and substantive (a reduction in the size of President Bush's 2003 tax cuts), and it credited her for effective constituent service. But it mentioned no innovative policies, no "solutions that unite rather than divide us."

Mickey Kaus, responding to that Brooks column (and writing before the Snowe announcement), argues persuasively that the political center, as a rule, is a source of intellectual stagnation, not innovation:

Those who buy the consensus elite position typically characterize dissenters as "extreme." In the 60s, the bipartisan consensus elite position on welfare was basically "to hell with requiring work. Let's just give everyone a guaranteed income." The extreme position was to oppose this as a "megadole," as a nutty winger named Reagan put it. When the consensus position proved both wildly unpopular and unworkable, the Reagan position eventually became the new consensus, adopted by not only Republicans but Bill Clinton.

These days, on the budget, the consensus elite position is that you have to both cut government and raise taxes. The "extreme" position is to try cutting government first. Crazy, I know. On immigration, the consensus elite position is that we need to couple border enforcement with a simultaneous amnesty. The "extreme" position is to do the enforcement part first, while avoiding new magnets that might draw further illegal entries. Is that what Brooks means by "beyond the fringe"?

You get the point. Brooks doesn't like the "heresy trial" that drove Rick Perry from the race merely for invoking the consensus position. But the only way for non-elites to convince elites that they are full of it is to beat them in elections when they invoke the consensus, no?

Another way of putting this is that the "elite consensus" is backward-looking, the result of past evolution, while only "extreme" ideas have the potential to drive forward the evolution of policy. The "vital center" would be more aptly termed the dead center. Here's an example, from a 2008 Esquire profile of Snowe:

The Republican party, "which had been the party of women," has become estranged from its roots, worries Snowe, identified strongly with those who are antichoice, anti-equal rights. Nearly forgotten is the fact that back in 1923 it was two Republican legislators from Kansas who introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in Congress. (Though the ERA was introduced in every session of Congress between 1923 and 1970, it almost never reached the floor of either the Senate or the House for a vote--instead, it was usually "bottled up" in committee). The platform of the 1940 Republican Convention called for an equal rights amendment for women to be added to the Constitution. Republican platform support for the Equal Rights Amendment remained through the 1976 convention. It was the 1980 convention, the convention of the antiabortion plank, the convention that nominated Ronald Reagan, which turned its back on the amendment.

Snowe is on the far left on the abortion issue; she was one of only 34 senators, and only three Republicans, to vote "no" on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. That does not make her in any way representative of women in particular, as opinion polls consistently show no significant difference between the sexes in their attitudes toward abortion.

But what's striking about the Esquire passage is that in it, she complains that the Republican Party went wrong in 1980, when she was a 33-year-old freshman congressman, and she expresses nostalgia for the party the way it was 89 years ago, in 1923. And they say Rick Santorum wants to turn back the clock.

(Hat tip to the New York Post's Robert George for today's headline.)

And speaking of David Brooks, another member of the antediluvian GOP center, as Taranto hinted above, he went off into Godwin land this week:

New York Times columnist David Brooks, a domesticated conservative, also decries what he sees as the Republicans' recent move to the right. He complains that Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana have tacked rightward in the face of potential primary challenges: "It's not honorable to adjust your true nature in order to win re-election." Then he complains that conservatives are too honorable: "Republicans on the extreme are willing to lose elections in order to promote their principles."

The closing paragraph, however, is a classic. Invoking Martin Niemöller, Brooks likens himself to the victims of the Holocaust:

First they went after the Rockefeller Republicans, but I was not a Rockefeller Republican. Then they went after the compassionate conservatives, but I was not a compassionate conservative. Then they went after the mainstream conservatives, and there was no one left to speak for me.

"No one left to speak for me," whines David Brooks, who speaks for himself twice a week in a column on the pages of America's second most influential newspaper.

I gave this Reason article plenty of grief in 2009 for getting the ideology implied by its title wrong, but after reading Brooks' cri de Niemöller, they may have been onto something warning of "The Paranoid Center."