A Chat with Olympia Snowe

The former Maine senator speaks about gridlock and hyperpartisanship on Capitol Hill — and what we can do to shape a more productive government.

Interview by Kathleen Fleury and Virginia M. Wright / Photographed by Mark Fleming

The 113th U.S. Congress is the most divided and the least productive in history, according to some political analysts, who predict that November’s mid-term elections will only deepen the divide. If that’s true, Olympia Snowe, Maine’s senator for 18 years, has got her work cut out for her. Known for her commitment to compromise and consensus building, Snowe, the 67-year-old moderate Republican, retired from the Senate in January 2013, expressing her frustration with the “atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies.” She has since made it her mission to restore a spirit of bipartisanship to Washington and end the gridlock in Congress. To that end, she has written a book, Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress, and founded Olympia’s List, which supports candidates who Snowe pegs as consensus builders. As co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, she is advocating for a number of reforms, such as open primaries and a two-year congressional budget cycle, as well as increased citizen engagement in the political process. We met Snowe on a sunny, late summer day in her Portland office, where she told us about her passion for government institutions that are focused on solving problems, her faith in the power of voters to bring change, and how we got in this quagmire in the first place.

Can you summarize the changes in Congress that brought you to the point where you felt you could no longer be effective?

Over my entire career, it had been the norm that you could work across the political aisle, work through your differences, and craft an approach to problems facing the country. But the ability to create consensus was no longer the operative method in the U.S. Senate, and the reality dawned on me that the polarization and partisanship would not diminish in the short term. It was no longer about solving problems. It was all about advancing a political agenda.

I loved being in public office, but I recognized that I could not contribute in the next six years in the way I thought was important to the country. I was so frustrated by the inability to craft any potential legislation to address to the country’s problems. The debt-ceiling crisis in 2011 really personified the level of political and financial brinkmanship that was occurring, and that was just the beginning of many crises manufactured by Congress. That was the consistent mode of operation — rather than creating optimism, it’s more about creating fear for the future of the country.

I had to wrestle with that in a personal way as well as a political one. It was heart wrenching because of the people who depend on me — both my constituents and my staff — and because it was going to be a shock politically.

In your book, you write about the founding in the mid-1980s of the 92 Group and the Conservative Opportunity Society. Is that when the road split and the political polarization began to manifest?

Tom Tauke (the Republican congressman from Iowa from 1979 to 1991) and I co-chaired the 92 Group. We were a moderate group designed towards finding what the party could do to be relevant in people’s lives and coming up with an agenda that reflected where the Republican Party stood on key issues and how we could build bridges within the party itself. We aligned ourselves with the conservative forces in the House of Representatives led by Newt Gingrich on the themes of fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense — the basic principles that made us all Republican. But that all diverged, ultimately. The whole political system was changing. Bipartisanship and compromise were seen as capitulation on your principles. You had to distance yourself from the notion that you were going to compromise with the other side because that was like working with the enemy.

Gee, have these people ever been married?

I know! My gosh, I didn’t know you could always get 100 percent of what you want! Yet that is exactly what people were commanding. Certainly that was true within the Republican Party, and overall, the political system was morphing into all or nothing, ideological absolutes. It accelerated over the last few years, and the financial crisis made it much more pronounced.

People weren’t willing to focus on the key issues. They were more inclined towards coming up with a political solution so they can advance their goals in the next election.

The ideologues and extremists are controlling the base of the political parties in the primaries, so people are now more worried about having a strong primary opponent than they are a strong general election opponent. It’s even worse now than when I left the Senate. This Congress has surpassed the last in being the least productive, probably, in our history. People are fearful for the future because they see an institution that is totally incapacitated in making any decisions, large or small.

Has the same thing happened in Maine state government?

Maine legislators did reach a number of bipartisan agreements a few years ago when Kevin Raye was president of the Maine Senate, but it seems it’s become much more difficult. I’ve heard that, across the country, it’s filtering through every level of government.

You write that voters are the solution. But didn’t voters get us here in the first place?

I don’t think they did that intentionally. Congressional districts have become much more politically homogenous — their seats are no longer competitive — because of gerrymandering. Depending on whose analysis you believe, as few as seven seats are considered to be tossups in this election. That’s why the Bipartisan Policy Center is proposing independent redistricting commissions, along with a whole host of initiatives.

The change in the political rankings of our senators and representatives is interesting, too. The National Journal identifies zero senators occupying middle ground.

Yes! This is the fourth year in a row and the fifth time ever that there are zero people who fall into that category. The public can change it, but they have to get engaged. According to a Pew Research Center survey, even if you doubled the number of voters who are consistently liberal and consistently conservative, there are still about 80 percent who are in the middle, who are willing to compromise even if they have strong views. But people have to stand up and reinforce those who are willing to work across the political aisle and provide a penalty for those who don’t, such as “no budget, no pay.”

At a recent Nature Conservancy luncheon, Senator Angus King remarked that senators used to know each other’s kids’ names and they don’t anymore. That was his way of saying they no longer know each other.

They’re hardly there. This year I think the Senate is going to be in session 123 days.

They don’t spend time getting to know each other, never mind their families. They’re not spending enough time on the job in Washington. That’s why we [the Commission on Political Reform] recommend a five-day workweek in Washington, with three weeks in session and one week in your district or state.

Why are you optimistic that things can change?

I travel across the country, and people say they are surprised that I am so hopeful. I say yes, because we can do something about it. [The Commission on Political Reform] is focusing on four or five issues, such as redistricting commissions and open primaries, and devising a six- to nine-month strategy to show people what they can do — using social media, gathering signatures — to get specific issues on the ballot.

I understand that the hyper-partisanship in Washington makes people feel alienated. They’re frustrated and they’re angry, and they should be, but they can do something about it. We’ve got to turn it around. I’m concerned it’s going to become institutionalized.

We were struck by the amount of hardship you’ve endured [Snowe was orphaned at age 9; her first husband, State Representative Peter Snowe, was killed in a car crash when she was 26; and her 20-year-old stepson, Peter McKernan, died from an undiagnosed heart ailment in 1991]. You could have easily been overcome by grief, but optimism seems fundamental to who you are.

I always thought the next day would be better. That kept me going. And I tell people who face hardship, “Don’t ask me why, but I have great faith that it will be better tomorrow.” Obviously you have to work at it. You have to be committed and not let the bad overwhelm you. I decided I did not want to be overwhelmed by it. It was a matter of survival.

It’s one reason I believe so fervently in the objective of public service, which is to help people, to represent the people you were elected to represent, and to understand what other people are experiencing. Whether you share the same experience is immaterial; the point is, you have your bad days and can you overcome them? With some help, you can.

It really enhanced my frustration in the aftermath of the financial crisis when, after what so many people endured — they lost their life savings, the value in their homes, their retirement, their jobs — we were doing nothing, and that’s not an exaggeration. And they’re doing nothing today, and that’s no exaggeration. What is important to the American people, what’s important to Mainers, right now, is the ability to care for their families.

Your philosophy seems to be an interesting balance of conservative economic policy and understanding that there is a role for government in supporting people who need it.

Ronald Reagan is a good example. He believed in efficient and effective government, but he didn’t believe in eviscerating it. I also believe government can play a fundamental role in creating a social safety net. I don’t believe in government being the first resort; it’s the last resort. I certainly don’t look to government as the only solution.

I happen to believe that it’s necessary to strike a balance where government can play an effective role when people cannot help themselves. I mean, Social Security and Medicare — think about America today without those vital programs. Those are absolutely vital and structurally important programs for this country, and we have to ensure their solvency and, if anything, strengthen them and build upon the types of programs that they represent. How many people would be living in poverty today if Social Security did not exist? That’s why I was never a supporter of — in fact, I blocked it — the idea of diverting a portion of revenues from Social Security to be invested in the stock market or 401ks. If that money had failed in the financial crisis of 2008, where would those people be today?

If you were running Maine, what would be your prescription for easing some of the hardship?

The most significant thing that needs to be accomplished is righting the economy and job creation. We have to create a competitive environment in Maine to attract those jobs. The overall national economy is not where it should be. Congress and the President have not removed the uncertainty that imperils the incentive for companies to make the investments to expand their operations. You can’t take those risks unless you know with certainty the direction of the country with respect to the regulatory environment, taxes, and governmental policy overall. This is the worst post-recession recovery in history because Congress and the President didn’t work on the issues that mattered.

You and Maine Governor Paul LePage have supported each other, which is unexpected in light of your dedication to consensus-building because he does not share that reputation.

Obviously, I take a different approach on how to articulate positions and discuss issues, but I share his belief in particular policies on taxes and on regulations that create a business environment in Maine. That’s what I share with him as a Republican. That’s why I’ve supported him. I concur with him on what needs to take place here in Maine to make it a stronger economic environment for the creation of jobs and attracting businesses. More than anything else, you want to make sure we don’t lose our young people to jobs outside the state. He is really working hard in that regard. Do I agree with the way he has characterized certain issues? No, it’s not the way I would do it.

Maine politics have historically been bipartisan — you almost didn’t see party lines. It seemed integral to the Maine character. Do you think those values will continue?

I do, because Maine continues to be independent. People value their independence. But I think it all will depend on how elected officials perform in creating the right kind of environment for people to create incentives for work. You have to create the jobs, and that’s just not happening in Maine or across the country, which is troubling. People in America are questioning whether their children will be better off than they’ve been. The next generation may not be. When have we ever been in that circumstance in our history?

You’ve worked on women’s issues throughout your career. What is your reaction to Senator King’s proposal to establish paid family leave? [In July, King and Republican Senator Deb Fischer introduced the Strong Families Act, which would create tax credits for employers offering paid family leave.]

I wasn’t aware that he had proposed that. Ultimately, I think paid family leave is possible, but they have to be careful right now because of the economic environment and the cost to businesses.

I think companies are coming to recognize how important it is to keep women in their ranks. So many businesses understand it’s smart to adapt the workplace, and that may well be true when it comes to paid family medical leave, rather than having a mandate from government. Frankly, it’s a mistake when companies overlook or ignore it and don’t try to make sure the workplace policies adapt. That’s why I was a big supporter of child care in general and why I wanted a refundable dependent care tax credit — because I thought it was so important for working families, whether they’re taking care of their parents or their children.

If you could deliver a message to the Maine people for the upcoming election season, what would it be?

Vote, become engaged, and speak up. Go to the debates and ask tough questions. Make candidates accountable for making government work. That should be a debate question: What are you going to do to make government work? You can’t sit on your hands and say, “No, I want it 100 percent my way.” I don’t know how this [attitude] evolved, but I find it irrational – you don’t demand that in any other sphere of life. The country is now at a virtual standstill. We can’t begin to measure the reverberation of all this legislative neglect five, six, or whatever years into the future.