Last summer I wondered if their might be a revival of the Gypsy Moths, a distinctly New England brand of Republicanism epitomized by the likes of Massachusetts pols such as John Volpe, Frank Sargent, Silvio Conte, Ed Brooke and Bill Weld. The retirement of Senator Olympia Snowe makes it increasingly unlikely.
The inexorable demise of New England Republicans in the Congress continues. Snowe’s departure means that the US Senate is even less likely to switch hands this fall as her seat is almost assuredly going to go to the Democrats. That partisan breakdown is of less importance, really, than the disposition of the person who replaces Snowe. Moderates aren’t the only ones capable of working across the aisle as our own Senator Kennedy’s many bipartisan endeavors demonstrate. But they do help provide the glue that keeps both sides talking to each other.
I recently read this review by Reihan Salam of Geoffrey Kabaservice’s new book Rule and Ruin, which chronicles the demise of a distinctive brand of Republican moderates. Yesterday David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times on The Possum Republicans was a nice follow-up. Then Snowe’s impending retirement hit. The bottom line is so simple but also so far out of reach: The GOP’s continued drift into a radical party that enforces an ideological rigidity cannot be sustained if they wish to be a majority party and if they wish to actually govern.
Parties and party members have every right to expect their institutions to have a degree of cohesion and there are times when parties contain within them very strange bedfellows: think Senator Lowell Weicker as the Republican Senator from Connecticut during Ronald Reagan’s term. Strange. Ezra Klein in yesterday’s Washington Post offered a pithy analysis of why polarization can be a net plus in our politics as well as why we’ve come to the dismal state of affairs of today. The parties need with moderate wins if we are to every get over the recent paralysis that afflicts our system today.
Too often, however, the moderates cower. They don’t organize as well as the extremes. And moderation by itself is not a great rallying cry. And this is not just a problem with Republicans. Democratic Senator Ben Nelson is also retiring and his career of working with Republicans was met with very vocal catcalls and efforts to isolate him politically by liberal activists.
What’s lost with a Snowe retirement is not just moderation. It’s the presence of someone willing and open to working across the aisle with the desire to engage in meaningful and principled compromises.