Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress
Senator Olympia Snowe
Weinstein Books, $26.00, 302 pages
May 14, 2013

Throughout her career, Olympia Snowe, the former senior Senator from Maine, made waves as one of the few moderates left in Washington, and she continues her quest for bipartisanship with her new book Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress. Part autobiography, part criticism of the state of politics, and part prescription for reform, proponents of civility will appreciate having this book added to the chorus of voices calling for reform in the way Washington conducts its business. It scores well on a number of different areas, but also has some important deficiencies, the most notable being that it does not answer the extremes’ criticisms of compromise, even if they really cannot answer her criticisms of them either.

Snowe’s work scores well as a contribution to the historical record. As a moderate New England Republican, Senator Snowe was often a swing vote for various matters that came before the Chamber. So the biographical sections of her book make for interesting reading since they show the development of her thought and approach to legislating. Similarly, her position as a persuadable provided her with a unique view of how important bills, like Obamacare, were crafted. Her account of these processes is worth reading as well.

As a new addition to the civility-partisanship-polarization genre, the book is decent, but not brilliant. Her explanation of why a lawmaker compromises is good: It “is not a capitulation of one’s principles. Rather, it is a recognition that not getting all that you want may be the only way to acquire enough votes to achieve most of what you seek” (228). Also, there are other important strengths to her treatment of Washington gridlock, like her clear explanation of parliamentary tactics like filling the amendment tree, which very few people know and understand. Overall though, Senator Snowe does not offer unusually insightful comments or perspectives on how to define civility or measure it. In general, her thoughts on the causes of polarization are not anything new and different, nor are her proposed remedies (campaign finance reform, lengthening the congressional workweek, etc.).

On the other hand, some of her ideas for reform are intriguing. For instance, she advocates restoring more power to the authorizing committees, which have lost their clout to party leadership and the Appropriations Committees. Also, on a number of occasions she refers to her successes at the state level and other sub-national initiatives that seem to produce beneficial results. It is good that she writes on both of these suggestions, and perhaps she could elaborate on these ideas in other places as she continues to work to improve Washington.

A book criticizing partisanship would not be a book at all if it did not actually call both parties to account for their contributions to it. Senator Snowe takes delight in being civil and cooperating with her colleagues, but that does not make her too timid to name names. For instance, she is not at all afraid to criticize Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for his unprecedented use the practice of filling the amendment tree and his closing of the amendment process in the Senate. However, it seems most of her criticism is reserved for the right wing of the Republican Party, represented by the Tea Party movement. She very reasonably criticizes their support for very conservative candidates in “purple” states. Likewise, to illustrate the practical necessity of compromise, she confronts them with questions of how they would resolve the nation’s problems if they themselves had disagreements on the meaning of the Constitution: “I never received a response to those questions,” she notes (226).

Snowe’s willingness to offer specific criticisms of specific groups, especially those in her own party, supports her contention that political civility still permits a vigorous exchange of ideas. However, at the same time, her criticisms suggest that she will have many difficulties winning the extremes over, if she desires to do that. For instance, although Snowe says her more conservative party members were unable to say what they would do when at an impasse, she herself does not address the limitations of compromise. Both parties argue that their policies are good for the nation as a whole and their opponents’ are bad. Given that proposition, it makes the most sense for them to compromise with the other side only when doing so will prevent a greater evil than inaction. However, for some on the right, making a deal is not a long-term solution, since compromising at best slows the growth of the Federal Government, whose massive debt is perceived to be an existential threat to the nation. For instance, Senator Snowe herself includes an example that proves their point:

High levels of deficits continued into 1982, when President Ronald Reagan negotiated an agreement with Democrats that for every dollar in taxes raised, spending would be cut by three dollars. So what happened? You guessed it: taxes were hiked immediately; the spending reductions were never realized (148).

So as much as Senator Snowe’s calls for compromise have some merit, party activists are justified in their skepticism as well. Furthermore, Snowe offers the Tea Party one admonition that they, and all citizens, should be wary of. When discussing her meetings with Tea Party activists, she writes:

I was able to discuss how my record clearly demonstrated I’d been a fiscal hawk throughout my tenure in Congress and that it wasn’t necessary for anyone to be looking over my shoulder to remind me what’s right and wrong on that score—I have my own conscience and my own record, which is replete with examples of attacking deficits and debt (224).

For obvious reasons, a public servant should probably never use the phrase “it wasn’t necessary for anyone to be looking over my shoulder.” Thankfully, it seems she was simply speaking about her defense of her voting record, but the phrasing is particularly poor since it could too easily be interpreted to mean that she thinks politicians are above oversight from citizens. This statement is also wince-worthy since, even if she was simply talking about her defense of her “fiscal hawk” bona fides, that determination is highly subjective and admits of many interpretations, making it a good discussion to have. One might object that it is nitpicking to criticize such a small portion of the book, but it is indicative of a general attitude that might be an obstacle to her and other moderates’ attempts to reach out to the more conservative wing of the Republican Party.

If Snowe is unable to reach the most conservative wing of her own party, perhaps she will have better success with the Democrats, which many would greatly appreciate. Thank you, Senator Snowe, for your service. May you have a restful, but productive, retirement.