Former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who made her name as a centrist deal-maker during her nearly 40-year congressional career, left office because she felt ineffective in the ever-more polarized Senate. Now she's joined the Bipartisan Policy Center and written a book, "Fighting for Common Ground," on how to effect change from the outside in hopes of returning Congress to a problem-solving body.
In an interview with U.S. News & World Report, Snowe reflects on the personality conflicts impairing the Senate's work and critiques the Republican Party's recent approach to women voters.
Is the problem really institutional or is there also a personal element with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell?
Absolutely. It's very difficult to have a functioning Senate if the two leaders do not communicate and don't appreciate one another's position. I always thought it was striking that Trent Lott and Tom Daschle (both former Senate majority leaders) communicated everyday and had a dedicated phone line to each other, because you can imagine in the day-to-day world that is fast-paced, many things can arise.
It's one thing to represent the caucus positions, it's another thing to understand that and communicate it with each other because that speaks to the larger question of their respective roles in the United States Senate, especially because the institution is based on accommodation and consensus – it's not a majority rule institution. Therefore it's paramount that they talk to one another and figure out how they can sort through some of these issues, and that really hasn't happened and obviously, that just aggravates the problem.
Why is the GOP regressing when it comes to issues that impact women and winning over women voters?
It's hard for me to even comprehend what the rationality, mentality that is within the Republican Party that would suggest this was the appropriate route, that we would alienate more than half the population. I think back about President Ronald Reagan and how he garnered the support of women because he went to the issues. Reagan believed in the value of an effective and efficient government, rather than one that simply was eviscerated. And women understand that there's an appropriate role for government and a lot of times women depend on some of the programs – if you look at the number of women on Social Security or Medicare – these are invaluable programs. So we should be espousing a limited but legitimate role for government, not just sending the message out there that 'You're on your own.' We've gotten onto the wrong track, frankly, far to the right and obviously to the extreme.
In your book you offer a lot of praise for Hillary Clinton – are you vouching for her as someone who likes to come at things from the middle?
Yes. She likes solving problems and I think she has a very practical side to her. That was evident when she was a senator and the way she went about her job. It was a difficult transition from where she was and how she was viewed [as a partisan]. She went about building support within the Senate brilliantly, doing everything possible to demonstrate that she was willing to work with the other side and to build bridges and be practical. She was deferential to those who were more senior and she really did go out of her way. She understood what was important to be effective.
The contrast would be a Sen. Ted Cruz type?
If you think about [his approach], it just flies in the face of what you do to be – in my view – somebody who can be effective. You have to work with people – there are only 100 members of the United States Senate. But it obviously depends on your goals. His role, I gather, might be on the outside. Everyone has their different goals and aims and some people come to the Senate and have a disdain for the Senate and show that. But that's not a long-term proposition. That's how he thinks he's representing his constituents, but at the same time in order to get things done for them it helps to work with others. You don't always have to be in somebody's face to be effective. There are moments where you do that and moments you don't, and you have to calibrate that.
Any final takeaways people should draw from your book and your Senate experience?
It's possible to change it – that's the message I want to convey. The Bipartisan Policy Center has just launched this new Common Ground project, in conjunction with Citizens' for Political Reform with the release of my book, so there will be an avenue and a catalyst for people to weigh in – we're trying to create a national movement to be the counterweight to the extremes that exist in politics today that is fueling this polarization, especially for those who want to continue to perpetuate it.