the national interest

How Snowe’s Retirement May Save Liberalism

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) heads into weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Captiol November 29, 2011
Olympia Snowe finally stands in the way of radicalism — by retiring. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The political press corps was locked in to cover the Republican primary race last night, so the Olympia Snowe retirement announcement received but a tiny fraction of the this-changes-everything coverage such an event would normally receive. One implication I suggested last night is that Snowe may well wind up running on the Americans Elect ticket, which could easily swing the results of the presidential election (though to which party is hard to say). But the more immediate and important implication is that it reduces the odds on the Republican Party’s “2012 or bust” strategy.

I described the Republican Party’s basic plan in my magazine piece this week. The gamble is that, if they can win the 2012 elections, they can pass a sweeping measure as close as possible to the Paul Ryan plan — sweeping tax cuts for the affluent, enormous cuts in programs that aid the poor, privatization of Medicare, and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have no real chance of obtaining a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, but they can pass large chunks of this agenda through a sweeping budget reconciliation measure that would require only a bare majority. Mitt Romney, the likely nominee, has endorsed huge tax cuts, the Ryan plan, and repealing the Affordable Care Act and has pledged to use budget reconciliation to accomplish all these goals. It’s not clear just how much of the agenda could be done with a bare majority — throwing people with preexisting conditions in their family off health insurance would be tricky, but throwing plain old poor people off health insurance would be easy, and tax cuts for the rich would be a piece of cake. (If they want to sweep in some other elements of their agenda that they can’t fit into a budget reconciliation bill, like deregulating Wall Street, they could repeal the filibuster.)

But the whole thing depends on winning the trifecta — White House, Senate, and House.

If Democrats control just one piece, the whole plan falls apart. The most likely prospect is the White House, where President Obama is enjoying rising approval ratings and is currently on track to win reelection. But things can always turn around, and the Democrats’ most likely fallback would be to hold on to 51 votes in the Senate. (Winning back the House would be the longest shot of the three, and especially unlikely if Democrats lose the presidential election.)

The race for control of the Senate looks very, very close. Democrats currently hold 53 Senate seats, but they have 23 up for reelection this year, against 10 for the GOP. Snowe was a near surefire lock to win reelection, and also a near surefire lock to eventually, after a series of heavy sighs and perhaps demanding of minor tweaks, vote for her party’s agenda (she supported the 2001 Bush tax cuts, opposed Bill Clinton’s 1993 deficit reduction and the Affordable Care Act.) Snowe’s retirement turns that seat into a likely Democratic pickup. Maine is a Democratic leaning state, and Snowe (along with colleague Susan Collins) have only managed to maintain their popularity by building up years of goodwill as moderates who slowly morphed into pseudo-moderates, an opportunity unavailable to other potential Republican candidates in that state.

Republicans can still win in Maine, or they could still pick up the Senate while losing Maine if they run the table elsewhere. But Snowe’s departure dramatically reorders the odds that such things as progressive taxation, Medicare as we know it and universal health insurance could survive an Obama defeat.

How Snowe’s Retirement May Save Liberalism