Sen. Olympia Snowe And The State Of The GOP

January 26, 2012 11:08 am ET — Jamison Foser

Anyone clinging to the hope that this might finally be the year congressional Republicans decide to help fix the economy rather than tearing it down for partisan gain or rigging it in favor of the wealthy should probably sit down before reading Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-ME) response to President Obama's State of the Union address. Coming in at close to 1,000 words, there's plenty of space in the response for Snowe to identify something — anything — Obama proposed that she can support. But she didn't do so. Instead, she chided Obama to "go beyond words and apply leadership to truly corral the best ideas from both sides of the aisle to advance our nation, rather than advancing any one political agenda."

It's never a good sign when a call for bipartisan cooperation is, itself, disingenuous and uncooperative, but the substance of Snowe's response was far worse than the tone, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to failed right-wing economic fantasies.

The most revealing aspect of Snowe's statement may be what she didn't say: There isn't a word about the massive and increasing income and wealth gap between the super-wealthy and everyone else.  Not even a word to dismiss the importance of the gap, which was a central theme of the president's speech, and a matter of great public concern for the past several months. It's as though Snowe somehow doesn't even recognize that this gap exists, and that it is symptomatic of an economic and political system rigged in favor of a few very fortunate, and very rich, Americans. Snowe, perhaps not coincidentally, happens to be one of those very fortunate, and very rich, Americans.

Snowe's very first solution to the nation's economic woes — the supposed importance of which is emphasized with both the phrase "first and foremost" and an exclamation point — is for the United States Senate to overcome "remarkable dysfunction" and pass a budget. It is difficult to imagine a complaint more disingenuous. The United States Senate is dysfunctional largely because Olympia Snowe's fellow Republicans have a stated goal of blocking anything President Obama and the Senate majority want, simply because they want it — and because Olympia Snowe has chosen to enable this obstruction rather than combat it. 

Such disingenuousness would be a tolerable annoyance if it accompanied an actual solution to the nation's economic woes. It doesn't. Snowe makes clear that her goal is "to rein in runaway spending and introduce discipline and responsibility to Washington's unsustainable spending habits." But spending cuts are the exact opposite of what the economy needs. Snowe's focus on producing a budget and reducing spending isn't a prescription for "economic growth and job creation," as she claims, but for persistent unemployment and deep cuts to services that hit hardest those who most need help.

Next, Snowe says we need "comprehensive tax reform that simplifies the tax code and makes it more fair," which she says she has "been calling for over the past three years" (though she could do something about it herself rather than calling for others to take the lead). A tax code that's more fair sounds like a worthy goal, if not particularly stimulative in the short term. But unlike President Obama, who offered some detail about what he thinks would constitute a fairer tax code — requiring millionaires to pay higher taxes than middle-class workers, for one thing — Snowe leaves the meaning of the word "fair" to the reader's imagination. That's probably because Snowe's idea of a fairer tax code seems to be one in which workers who earn the least see their taxes go up. (Snowe is smart enough not to say this explicitly, but it's the only way to interpret her complaint that "after decades of attempts to add 'fairness,' the old system has resulted in nearly 50 percent of Americans paying no federal income taxes at all.") And Snowe has opposed modest surcharges on annual income in excess of $1 million. No wonder Snowe didn't explain what she meant by "more fair" — most Americans think the rich don't pay their fair share, but the very rich senator from Maine thinks the poor should pay more instead.

After banging the drum for tax cuts for businesses that don't need them, Snowe moves on to denouncing onerous regulations that aren't the problem, either. Snowe complains that because of government regulations, "it costs U.S. firms 18% more to manufacture goods compared to China, India, and our other major competitors — and that is unacceptable." Of course, one key government cause of higher domestic manufacturing costs is the prohibition on employing ten-year-old children for pennies a day in sweatshops. Is this the kind of burdensome government meddling in the free market Snowe wants to do away with? It's impossible to say: As usual, she fails to offer a single specific example. In any case, government regulations aren't holding the economy back. Even small business owners, who have an incentive to complain about regulations even if they aren't much of a problem, consistently identify lack of demand, not job-crushing regulatory burdens, as the biggest reason why they aren't hiring. 

Which brings us to demand. Snowe doesn't mention it. Not even a passing, glancing acknowledgement of the concept, of which she was once quite aware. That's a bit of a problem, considering that lack of demand is the key reason why businesses aren't hiring and the economy continues to struggle. Businesses have no reason to hire, because they don't' have enough customers. They don't have enough customers because people don't have jobs. People don't have jobs because businesses have no reason to hire. Everyone from Nobel Prize-winning economists to struggling business owners is trying to tell Snowe this, but she won't listen. And the best way to break that vicious circle is for the government to borrow money at absurdly low rates and spend it — or just give it to struggling Americans so they can spend it. But, remember, Snowe wants to cut government spending, an approach that has already made things worse

If Snowe's individual prescriptions make little sense, collectively they are as disorienting and distorting as a carnival house of mirrors. She wants to "aggressively" reduce not just deficits but the debt — which means running an annual surplus — "without jeopardizing our nation's most vulnerable" or raising taxes on the wealthy, a mathematical impossibility. Her desired reduction in spending, in addition to unavoidably "jeopardizing our nation's most vulnerable," is a surefire way to prolong high unemployment, thwarting her goal of broadening the tax base and making it even harder to reduce deficits without painful spending cuts. The regulatory relief she offers small businesses that aren't clamoring for it and don't need it is of little comfort to businesses who don't have enough customers to keep the doors open. And so on.

Olympia Snowe, whose seniority, committee assignments, and position as one of the GOP's few women, Northeasterners, and (supposed) moderates, could have spent the past three years as a key legislative fulcrum, working tirelessly to drag her party back from economic know-nothingism and blinding partisanship. That's the kind of role she once admired

On impulse, during a recent interview, Snowe led a visitor into House Room 235, formerly the Congressional Ladies' Lounge, now a high-ceiling cloister for work or relaxation decorated with the photos of the 144 women who have served in Congress. She paused before the image of Maine's legendary Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to have served three terms in the Senate.

"She had incredible courage," said Snowe, reflecting on Smith's opposition to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's anticommunist witch hunts in the '50s. "She had to speak out against her fellow Republicans." [Boston Globe, 8/2/93]

Instead, Snowe has embraced the Tea Party, in substance if not in style. Whether out of fear, naked partisanship, or self-interested preference for public policy that helps rich people like herself at the expense of the rest of the country, Olympia Snowe is a vivid illustration of a political party that has cast aside any trace of sanity and altruism, and of the asymmetric polarization that has defined politics and government for decades.