Yesterday, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) did something she rarely does -- shock people -- when she announced that she would not be seeking a fourth term in office. The news seemed to come from out of the blue -- her colleague, and traditional partner in legislative dithering Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was said to be "devastated" by the news. And the announcement could not have been greeted fondly by the GOP, who will struggle to retain her seat. It was good news, however, for everyone who likes making "Snowe" puns on Twitter.
In her parting remarks, Snowe alluded to a "new chapter" in her career, in which she saw the need to advocate for a "political center" that, to her mind, was needed for "our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us." To that end, Snowe averred that she was resolved to "give voice to my fellow citizens who believe, as I do, that we must return to an era of civility in government driven by a common purpose to fulfill the promise that is unique to America."
But were these the generic sentiments of a politician departing the Beltway for a different sort of public life? Or was this a hint that Snowe has bigger plans in store for us? Like, say ... I don't know ... maybe for her next chapter she will do something crazy, like mount a losing campaign for the presidency in 2012? Jonathan Chait speculates that something along these lines might be brewing:
This sounds exactly like the kind of rhetoric emanating from Americans Elect, the third-party group that believes that both parties should put aside partisanship and come together to enact an ever-so-slightly more conservative version of Barack Obama's agenda. Moderate retiring senators often deliver lofty, vacuous paeans to bipartisanship on their way to a lucrative lobbying career. But Snowe's statement seems unusually specific ("unique opportunities to build support for that change from outside the United States Senate") about her intent to do something.
Ahh, yes! Americans Elect, our favorite collection of hedge fund managers and other assorted toffs that no one would object to Rick Santorum calling snobs, want to get some sort of President-type thing on the ballot in 2012. Ideally, they'd like a candidate who'd carry the banner of the mushy center -- a pal of corporate America who'd advocate against taxing carried interest and onerous financial sector regulation, but would do so without a lot of fringey right-wing baggage or lefty concerns for "the 99%."
Snowe definitely fits the Americans Elect profile. She's basically the avatar of centrist behavior. She's civil in tone and moderate in voting record. She's obsessive/compulsive with the legislative process -- things have to be arranged and adjudicated just so, or she won't participate. And if a piece of legislation comes down the pike that might be too effective in transforming an already set policy, you can count on Snowe to get skittish and look for the brakes.
In addition, Americans Elect likely sees Snowe as one of them. She's well known at the Charlie Palmer Steakhouse, Washington's premier destination for Beltway insiders and political elites whose itchy palms can only be soothed by the soft massage of sweet, sweet campaign cash. And over the years, Snowe's been someone that the Americans Elect set have happily supported -- her top contributors have been from the securities and investment sector.
Chait goes on to observe the coincidence that "David Boren, the former Democratic senator from Oklahoma and oil industry lickspittle, came out for Americans Elect" on the same day Snowe announced her retirement. A Snowe/Boren ticket would fit the definition of what Americans Elect calls "balance," which they require for their proposed presidential ticket -- by which they mean the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidate should be from different parties, yet also be reliable corporate-friendly centrists.
But is this what Snowe actually wants to do? Her first post-announcement interview was with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC this afternoon, and the way she talked about her decision left it hard to discern if some sort of presidential run is in the offing. (Of course, it would have been useful for Mitchell to just ask her point-blank if she intends to seek the presidency.)
She told Andrea Mitchell it was a "difficult decision" but she determined that "in the context of the time we are in in the Senate, it's very difficult to resolve major issues." To Snowe's mind, both parties contributed to the overall dysfunction, and she reiterated that she wanted to "pursue other opportunities outside the Senate that perhaps I can give voice to the frustrations that you know, exist with the political system here in Washington, where it's dysfunctional, and the political paralysis has over taken the environment to the damaging of the good of the country."
But that was mostly a rehash of yesterday. When Mitchell brought up the 2012 race, it was to inquire if Snowe was prepared to endorse one of the GOP candidates. Snowe begged off:
SNOWE: I'm not going to make endorsement right here. Let me say that. I think ultimately, whether it's within our party, or across the aisle, ultimately, here in this senate, we have to work together, hopefully we can move forward in a united fashion. We are stronger united than we are divided.
She added that this was "important for us in supporting a presidential candidate, if we want to win the election." Which sounds like she was imagining the 2012 race as one in which she'd play the role of encouraging unifier behind a Republican nominee. But I suppose that Snowe "left the door open" when she made it clear that she decided that "if [she] was going to do something different, it had to be at this moment in time."
If it seems odd that anyone would seriously expect an Olympia Snowe candidacy to set the world on fire, well ... you haven't met Americans Elect yet. This is one of their great ironies: their whole organizing philosophy is premised on the notion that voters can be whipped into an excited frenzy behind the sorts of candidates who don't exactly exude personality or personal charisma, and whose ideas primarily revolve around being civil and careful and not making any big promises or having much in the way of big ambitions.
It couldn't be clearer that Americans Elect envisions some sort of heretofore unseen political marketplace for someone like former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) or former presidential candidate and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R), but this odd supposition collides with reality in all sorts of unintended ways. For example, the "most tracked" and "most supported" candidate on Americans Elect -- by a wide margin -- is Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) , for whom geniune excitement does exist.
But it's hard to imagine that Americans Elect would allow Paul to be their candidate, even if it was something that Paul wanted (which I suspect he doesn't). My read of their bylaws, and the organization's unwillingness to come clean about the money that funds this goofy little project of theirs, leads me to suspect that in the end, the people behind the curtain will choose whatever candidate they like. Americans Elect doesn't much care for me saying this (by the time you read this they'll have sent me another one of their gently chiding email complaints), but I remain pretty confident in suggesting that if Americans Elect's backers get saddled with a nominee that does not comport to their worldview (like, say, Buddy "Get The Secret Money Out Of Politics" Roemer, who will take Americans Elect's ballot access if he can get it), they'll just game the system and put up a candidate that's more to their liking.
They could do worse than the retiring Senator from Maine. So who knows? Maybe Americans Elect will turn out to be just the Snowe job I think it is. (See. I like Snowe puns too.)
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