A few weeks ago I received an unexpected call from Senator Olympia Snowe’s outreach coordinator inviting me, as Maine RLC Chair, to a meeting with the Senator. Also invited were representatives from other conservative organizations including tea party activists, constitutional conservatives and libertarians. Guests includes representatives from the Maine Legislature and the Republican State Committee.
The meeting was on neutral ground in a hotel conference room in Augusta. Ten of us sat around a rectangular table with Senator Snowe and two aides at the head of the table. The common thread was that all the participants represented factions of the Republican Party that were either critical of Senator Snowe’s moderate track record, and in some cases outright hostile to the Senator. The meeting was clearly an effort to reach out to the “right wing” (although, as a libertarian, I reject that label) of the Republican Party.
Senator Snowe began the meeting by thanking us for attending and stating that she wanted to have an open and frank discussion of issues facing the country as well as hearing criticism of her own voting record in the U.S. Senate.
Wow! That was certainly a bold thing for her to do given the ideological demographic of the room. What followed was a very civil yet frank discussion of the big issues facing the country. Olympia Snowe is one of the most seasoned and skillful politicians in the country. Her skills shone as she defended her record. She spoke extensively about some of the truly beneficial work she has done for the State of Maine: saving the Domtar paper mill in eastern Maine, saving the Kittery naval shipyard and consistently working to bring Federal funds to the state. There is no doubt that a good deal of her political success can be attributed to her excellent constituent service work.
Senator Snowe ably defended her voting record on health care. Some in the room thought that her support in committee for Obamacare was a decisive vote. In fact it wasn’t, and she made that clear. She explained that she had voted for the bill in committee in exchange for a promise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that the legislation would be open to Republican amendments when it reached the Senate floor. Reid broke his promise, she said. Snowe insisted that she is not only opposed to Obamacare now, but that she supports full repeal of the law. A recent vote of hers has actually borne that promise out.
At one point in the meeting when Snowe was accused of “voting against Republicans” we saw her become somewhat emotional. She recounted the time when her husband John “Jock” McKernan was the Governor of Maine. He was in the midst of a government shutdown resulting from a standoff with the legislature over workers’ compensation reform in the late 80′s. Then-Congresswoman Olympia Snowe was on the phone with her husband and she could overhear shouts and insults from protesting State employees who had been admitted to the state house by then-Speaker John Martin. Snowe commented that she and Jock felt that they were not supported by many Republicans at the time.
Olympia Snowe also defended her vote for TARP (the 2008 financial bailout bill) arguing that the country was at the edge of an abyss. She went on to announce that she would be sponsoring a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget as well as a higher threshold (3/5 vote) to raise taxes. The balanced budget amendment sat well with the invitees in the room.
What fell flat, in my opinion, were some of her answers to questions that should have been predicted from that crowd. Snowe seemed puzzled by a suggestion that the recent food safety bill was unconstitutional because it affected farmers who don’t sell their produce across state lines. Snowe even boasted that she was able to include a provision that farmers with revenues of less than $500,000 would be excluded. What about the potato farmer who brings in $500,001, but doesn’t ship one French fry outside of Maine?
Some in the room questioned the Senator’s membership of the Council on Foreign Relations and even asked if she supported George H. W. Bush’s reference to a “New World Order”. At that point we were getting into some really esoteric conspiracy theory territory. Nevertheless one would expect the Senator to at least understand the context of the comments and be able to respond appropriately. It really seemed to me that she was flummoxed (although she might have been just carefully considering the question). In fact I found myself in the awkward position of having to explain the issue. I also made clear my view that while there is a real threat to our constitution from those who would undermine US sovereignty with globalism, that wasn’t what Bush 41 was referring to in 1991. I would think that someone on her staff would have briefed her about this stuff before going into a meeting that included devotees of the John Birch society.
The genesis of this meeting was clearly a concern by Olympia Snowe’s political operation that she may be facing a primary challenge (we now know that she is) to her upcoming reelection effort in 2012. Snowe has long been seen as a thorn in the side of the “right wing” (again, as a libertarian I exclude myself from that label) of the party. It would be one thing if she were simply a social moderate and a fiscal conservative. That would certainly be okay with me and other libertarians. Her real problem lately has been on the fiscal conservative side of things. I refer specifically to the elephant in the room. The elephant that was never acknowledged at this meeting. That is the Obama stimulus bill. The gigantic budget-busting $800 billion attempt to stimulate the economy in early 2009. Senator Snowe was instrumental in the passage of that bill. The Tea Party movement was a direct reaction to the Stimulus bill, Obamacare just threw fuel on the fire.
Over her career, Olympia Snowe has certainly been a moderate, but a moderate with a libertarian angle. Every year the Republican Liberty Caucus ranks members of Congress on the Nolan chart-inspired Liberty Index. The Liberty Index ranks members of Congress on a pro-liberty voting index equally weighted between social issues and economic issues. Sen. Snowe has consistently scored above 50% on both axis. In fact, most recently she scores in the conservative quadrant with a better record on economic issues than social issues. That record has always earned Olympia Snowe support from me in her previous election campaigns. The question I struggle with now is whether her vote for stimulus was a deal breaker in the next campaign.
I wanted to keep RLC membership informed of this development. We should certainly make time to discuss it during our upcoming Maine RLC Leadership Conference — which is scheduled for April 23, 2011 in Augusta, Maine.
Chairman, Maine RLC