Franklin Countys First News

Fighting for Common Ground (or whatever)

John Frary

John Frary

Olympia Snowe’s Fighting for Common Ground makes it clear that she disapproves of ideologues and approves of the No Labels movement. But what is “ideologue” if it’s not an invidious label used only to denounce and discredit? Nobody has ever complimented a public figure for being an upstanding and outstanding ideologue. No voter has ever read that word in a positive context. It’s a jeer-word, never used in any other way.

Her conservative critics regularly taunt Snowe as a RINO, an equally invidious jeer-acronym, which appears only in a negative context. Her insistent praise of bipartisanship encourages this, but the fact remains that she always appeared as Senator Snowe (R-Maine), never as Senator Snowe (BiP-Maine). As Paul Mills recently pointed out here, she consistently stood with her party on a large number of issues. There’s no Republican Central Control Commission or Parteigericht responsible for maintaining party purity, so who’s in charge of deciding if Olympia Snowe, Margaret Chase Smith, Teddy Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower qualify for membership? No point in denouncing her as Conservative In Name Only. She never claimed the label conservative.

The plain fact is Olympia Snowe was always as partisan as she needed to be. She always knew how to speak fluent Republicanian to GOP audiences. She contributed $2,000 to my congressional campaign and praised my merits as a candidate, although she never managed to pronounce my name correctly and couldn’t recognize me when I stood a yard away from her.

It’s a curious feature of her book that, although she repeatedly condemns ideologues, she never actually names one. She offers restrained criticism of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi for some incidents of parliamentary hocus-pocus, but nowhere identifies them as ideologues. Neither is her gentle disapproval of Grover Norquist turbo-charged with that fatal label.

Her refusal to identify any of her congressional colleagues as ideologues demonstrates the woman’s commitment to civility. Her service on the advisory board of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NCID) at the University of Arizona reflects this even more clearly. That Institute, chaired by Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush and adorned with a platoon of A-list public figures is undeniably respectful and eminently respectable.

I’ve examined its site ( There’s nothing there designed to produce any sort of government or party policy. Its research grants and reports are solely intended to civilize our public discourse. Some sample verbiage from three essays:

1) “...a case study-centered linguistic anthropological analysis of a small corpus of four different instances of naturally-occurring conflict-talk”

2) “...content analytic measures of civility, use these measures to track levels of civility in online discussions, and identify dimensions of news and technology that influence these patterns.”

3) “We also identify empirical research questions that must be answered if we are to assess the accuracy of the explicit and implicit behavioral assumptions underlying current legal and political debates about civil discourse.”

I have no idea who reads this kind of stuff, but we can see how it might serve to quell political passions. Reading it had that effect on me. My head drooped and my pulse almost stopped as I plodded through it. Unfortunately the site fails to address routine exacerbations of racial paranoia. The names Al Sharpton, Maxine Waters, Charlie Rangel (“tax cuts are a code word for racism”) Louis Farakhan, for example, don’t come up at all. It has nothing to say about the comprehensive array of obscenities the name Sarah Palin attracts. It pays no attention to those equating the Tea Party with the Taliban. Bush Derangement Syndrome goes unnoticed.

As to the latter spasm of incivility, Olympia might have used her reputation as Queen of Moderation to try to calm it. A simple statement that, while she disagreed with “W’s” policies on a number of issues, she deplored the common practice of denouncing him as an improbable combination of Machiavelli, Professor Moriarty, and Mortimer Snerd might have helped. She never did. Still, it’s only fair to acknowledge that whatever else she is, Olympia Snowe is a skilled and successful politician. Such a public defense would have attracted the wrath of the Bushitler-haters without any compensatory personal benefit. A moderate always knows when to shut up.

I agree with Paul Mills’ description of her policy preferences as “eclectic,” but despite her no-labels fables Olympia prefers to label herself a moderate. Eclectic is just a word, but “moderate” has an uplifting sound. Many voters find it soothing and pleasant to hear. How would she not know that?

This brings up an all-too common verbal slight of hand which I find objectionable. She habitually treats her uncompromising “pro-choice” stands as an example of moderation. In reality we have an irreconcilable conflict of values between those who take a stand on the sanctity of life and those who stand on the sanctity of individual liberty. There are no grounds for labeling one side or the other as moderate.

David Brooks, the New York Times house conservative, explains “What Moderation Means” in a 2012 column that Olympia quotes (pp. 230-231) with a hearty “Hallelujah!”

“The moderate....understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are to partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between hem, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.”

“Americans have prospered over the centuries because we’ve keep a rough balance between things like individual opportunity and social cohesion, local rights and federal power.”

Some scorn compromise a defective method of decision-making. And so it is. Lord Edward Cecil (1867-1918), was exactly right when he defined compromise as “An agreement between two men to do what both agree is wrong.” What else could it be? A compromise between conflicting principles requires the mutilation of both. It may require logical absurdities as well.

Compromise is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end; and the end that provides its ultimate justification is the avoidance of the bloodshed that the vindication of principle often demands. France’s King Henry IV understood this when he ended his nation’s bloody religious wars by converting to Catholicism and issuing the Edict of Nantes protecting Protestant rights. His justification could not have been clearer: “Paris is worth a mass.”

The series of compromises between North and South over material interests, between slave-holding and anti-slavery factions, between states’ rights and national rights served the same end. All those compromises required a sacrifice of conflicting principles and all involved logical absurdities—most flagrantly the agreement to count slaves as three-fifths of a human for purposes of apportioning representation in the House.

Cheerful talk about comforting trajectories of history is vitiated by the outcomes of these historical compromises. A principled Catholic assassinated Henry. Louis XIV, another principled Catholic, revoked the Edict of Nantes and systematically persecuted the Huguenots. Americans could only resolve their conflicting principles by a civil war. Abolitionists despised the Constitution as a pact with Satan because of its compromises and scorned Lincoln for proposing compromises over slavery.

Today few people criticize the Abolitionists for the purity of their principles and Lincoln is remembered at the Great Emancipator. No argument with that, bur it is well to remember that Lincoln issued his Proclamation and advocated the Thirteenth Amendment only after the blood price had been paid. More, Lincoln was absolutely uncompromising about the extension of slavery and the right of secession.

I see no evidence in her book that Olympia Snowe spends much time pondering rough balances, trajectories of history or the “partial truths” of her critics. Whatever the merits of the individual legislative achievements about which she boasts, their collective trajectory is clear: expansion of the power of the national government. The fact that “Constitution” appears nowhere in her book’s index suggests indifference to, or ignorance of, the concerns felt by many.

It can be argued—seriously—that intellectual shallowness is an asset to devising short-term compromises. Taking her book and political history together, Maine’s premier stateswoman resembles a knowledgeable, hard-working engineer who understands the locomotive’s mechanisms; knows how to stoke its boiler, grease its gears and polish it brass bell to a fine gloss, but doesn’t much care where the tracks lead.

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5 Responses »

  1. The "sanctity of life" and "the sanctity of individual liberty" are not in conflict with each other. The latter cannot exist without the former. If you have no right to even be alive, why should you have any rights at all?

  2. I have to agree with that WILL M. but those advocating abortion rights will not. They understand the question purely in terms of protecting an individual right. That is the value they embrace and that's how the debate is framed.

  3. "Maine’s premier stateswoman resembles a knowledgeable, hard-working engineer who understands the locomotive’s mechanisms; knows how to stoke its boiler, grease its gears and polish it brass bell to a fine gloss, but doesn’t much care where the tracks lead."

    Yup,...unfortunatly,....the direction of where the train is headed is much more important than looking pretty rolling down the track. I am glad Snowe is gone, least with Angus you know you have a liberal in there and can count on him voting accordingly. Snowe will go down in history as the deciding vote that kept the biggest boondoggle ever jammed down the throats of Working Americans alive,......Obamacare. How nice.

  4. “Ideologue” is a pejorative, I agree. But those that deserve that label could also be called, “principled.” People who are principled usually have a good idea of where their train is headed. In the case of Senator Snowe, I believe that the only principle she embraced was “Do whatever I can to get reelected.”

    This has been a very interesting essay by Professor Frary.

  5. she might run for Gov?