Republicans Leaders Could And Should Have Seen Olympia Snowe’s Retirement Coming

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 08: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) talks on the phone while heading to the Senate Republican Caucus policy luncheon May 8, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

David Catanese and Manu Raju have a great piece about how despite a very favorable map the GOP now faces a steep uphill climb to seize a majority in the Senate. They say, rightly, that this reflects in part “a central leadership that is unwilling, and perhaps unable, to control its base — enfeebled by fear of tea party activists, conservative talk show hosts, and big-money outsiders who can swing primary races.”

But here’s a to-be-sure:

Yes, party leaders suffered a pair of bad breaks that no one saw coming — Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe’s abrupt retirement in late February and Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s explosive remark on “legitimate rape.”

That seems wrong to be on Snowe. She wasn’t literally pushed out of the Republican Party the way Arlen Specter was since the Maine Republican Party is less right-wing than the Pennsylvania GOP. But the kind of politicking in which she and Specter engaged over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—take a presidential proposal, water it down a little bit and bargain for a few idiosyncratic priorities—was and is clearly the approach to politics that she preferred.

The Democratic Party, being both more ideologically diverse at the base level and perennially facing a Senate map that overrepresents low-population states disconnected from the party’s big city base, lets its Senators do a lot of freelancing to stay viable. The trend in the Republican caucus has been very hostile to that kind of freelancing. So even though it was clear that Snowe’s personal preference was to cut an ARRA-style deal over the health care bill, it was clear she’d be alone out on a limb if she did and she eventually gave up. That’s what the GOP leadership wanted. But obviously if you create circumstances in which incumbent Senators can’t conduct themselves in office the way they prefer, that elevates the chance of them quitting. Putting heavy pressure on Snowe to cease engaging in her preferred approach to the legislative arts foreseeably carried a high chance of inducing her to throw in the towel.

In general, I think the trend toward polarization is a good thing.

But merely as a descriptive matter, DC conventional wisdom still hasn’t really caught up with the extent to which Senate Republican rejectionism on health care was a major gamble. Obama and moderate Senate Democrats were clearly prepared to make major substantive concessions in exchange for Republican cover. By denying them that cover, the GOP hoped to kill the bill but instead induced the Democrats to pass a more liberal bill. Olympia Snowe’s retirement is another bit of collateral damage from that tactic. If Mitt Romney wins in November, a lot of conservatives will say it was a gamble that paid off. But if he loses, they’ll have paid a huge price for declining to bargain when lots of people wanted to.