03/01/2012 06:31 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

Pragmatic Snowe's Departure From Senate a Shock but Not a Surprise

Olympia Snowe's decision to retire rather than seek a fourth Senate term was a shock but not a surprise.

It surely came as a shock to Mitch McConnell and his GOP colleagues, who saw their goal of pushing Harry Reid out of the majority leader's office unexpectedly slip further from their grasp.

For citizens less interested in partisan one-upmanship and more interested in the Senate returning to tradition as the world's greatest deliberative body, Snowe's decision to cut short her Senate career sadly was inevitable. Her ethic of reaching across the aisle to solve the nation's problems seems a relic of a bygone time, when politics was the art of the possible rather than trench warfare by ideologues pursuing the ever-elusive goal of permanent majority.

We're a long way from the days when compromise wasn't viewed as a betrayal of principles but as the only realistic strategy for attending to the public's business in a very diverse, very complicated republic. When Olympia Snowe arrived in Congress as a House freshman in 1979, there was far more of the personal comity among lawmakers that makes good-faith negotiations possible. The days when Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey could debate each other fiercely on the Senate floor, then hoist cocktails together off the floor have gone the way of black-and-white television and rotary telephones.

On Thursday, as Snowe told NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Senate Republicans and Democrats exist in parallel universes, talking past each other like two radio sets tuned to different frequencies. Too often, Senate debate is not deliberation aimed at resolving conflicts but campaigning aimed at perpetuating conflicts. Base voters are kept aflame, the institution ingeniously designed by the founders is corroded, and the nation's problems fester.

Olympia Snowe has served Maine and America with distinction for more than three decades in Congress. Her brand of pragmatic conservatism on a range of issues -- environmental stewardship, economic growth, budget discipline, and many more -- has been the middle ground where solutions to national problems are most likely to be found. That Senator Snowe believes her pragmatism is no longer effective or even welcome is a tragedy.