The sudden retirement of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) sent more than a little ripple through the political firmament this week. It was more like a brick upside the GOP head.
By all accounts, the senator’s decision left many of her Republican colleagues catching their breath and many Democrats salivating about what her departure means for the fall elections. What I see from the cheap seats is a potential wasteland for the GOP.
On one level, Snowe’s departure may very well signal the end of the GOP’s ability to hold on to, let alone bring fresh to the table, people of diverse opinions and perspectives who believe in those First Principles that have anchored our party since its founding.
On another, more practical level, too many in the GOP seem to have lost appreciation for the Olympia Snowes of our party who matter in two important ways: They hold a seat that would certainly otherwise be held by a Democrat; and they stand with the party when it’s time to vote for the next Speaker of the House or to confirm the next justice to the Supreme Court.
Moreover, and equally significant, while our core is solidly conservative there has always been an indispensable importance in recognizing our moderate edges. There was a time when that was our strength — it didn’t mean we were less conservative, but rather more pragmatic in our approach to politics and policy. But today, our politics have become polarized to the point of alienating us from the other, outside and inside the GOP. Now Republicans are left imaging what it will be like when the votes being cast by the next senator from Maine are being cast by a Democrat.
As much as we'd like our leaders to tow the conservative line across the board, the simple fact is the nation does not and has repeatedly told us that. Our problem is, as soon as we get an opportunity to bring the American people around to our conservative argument on economic policy, for example, we drive right past job creation and tax reforms to abortion and the “social agenda.” The difference between the conservative and liberal approach is liberals pursue their social agenda through economic policies that often appear reasonable on the surface (“who wants to tax the rich?!”). Conservatives push for constitutional amendments.
For each party, the political objective is to control legislative bodies. That makes the vote for leadership more important than just about any other vote a member will typically take. To be successful on that front requires Republicans to build coalitions within the party. From our grassroots to the halls of Congress, we preach “inclusion” and “broadening the party” like we mean it and folks start to buy into it but then we make a hard right turn. That kills momentum and marginalizes our ability to persuade colleagues on other issues outside the culture wars.
Olympia Snowe's departure is a blow to the GOP just like the loss of former Maryland Congresswoman Connie Morella's seat was (her seat is now held by Democrat Chris Van Hollen), and we shouldn't be dismissive of it. We are losing a thoughtful, center right voice and replacing her won't be easy, and it will be expensive.
Democrats have moved the country significantly in their direction over time by doing it incrementally. That's only possible with the patience required to succeed. Republicans appear to lack the patience that brings long-term success. That's what a Sen. Snowe brought to the GOP caucus — the patience to make progress as opposed to the drive to storm the castle. (In medieval times, to siege the castle sometimes took months or years to succeed, whereas an assault was fairly quick and may or may not result in success. Whether in their politics or policymaking, Democrats take the siege approach while Republicans prefer the assault that either succeeds or is repelled with no middle ground for ultimate success.)
Finally, my party would be wise to consider that the very election of people like Olympia Snowe of Maine, Mike Castle of Delaware, Connie Morella of Maryland and Bob Bennett of Utah tells us something important: There is a market for center-right leaders in our country and in our party. If we continue to dismiss or ignore that we will be left to wander alone in a political wasteland.
Michael Steele served as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a political commentator. He will be providing commentary on all things politics for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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