When prominent members of Congress are considering retirement, there's nearly always some kind of hint in advance of the announcement. Maybe they stop raising money; perhaps they're slow to put a campaign organization together; maybe key staffers are seen moving to new jobs elsewhere; something.
But with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, all of the evidence pointed in the other direction. Not only were there no hints about a pending departure, the Republican senator gave every indication of seeking another term, even moving considerably to the right.
It's what made Snowe's retirement announcement late yesterday such a stunning surprise.
"As I enter a new chapter, I see a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us. It is time for change in the way we govern, and I believe there are unique opportunities to build support for that change from outside the United States Senate. I intend to help give voice to my fellow citizens who believe, as I do, that we must return to an era of civility in government driven by a common purpose to fulfill the promise that is unique to America."
There are a few angles to a story like this. First, in terms of the electoral consequences, Snowe's announcement is a brutal setback for Republican plans to retake the Senate majority next year. As Steve Kornacki explained, "With Snowe in it, Democrats had virtually no chance of winning the Maine Senate race this year. Now they are likely to do so, given the state's partisan bent."
Second, I can't help but wonder how much Snowe regrets her shift to the right, taking positions she never would have adopted earlier in her career.
Consider just the last few months. In October, she partnered with a right-wing Alabama senator to push a plan to make the legislative process even more difficult. A week earlier, she demanded the administration act with “urgency” to address the jobs crisis, only to filibuster a popular jobs bill a day later. The week before that, Snowe prioritized tax cuts for millionaires over job creation. Shortly before that, Snowe tried to argue that government spending is “clearly … the problem” when it comes to the nation’s finances, which is a popular line among conservatives, despite being completely wrong.
There can be little doubt that Snowe has been Congress' most moderate Republican for the last several years, but that doesn't change the fact that as her party moved sharply to the right, she moved with it. Indeed, no matter how extreme the GOP became in recent years, Snowe simply kept her head down, going along with the crowd. When David Brooks complains about "Opossum Republicans," he might as well have been referring to the senior senator from Maine.
And third, there's the mystery surrounding what, exactly, led to yesterday's announcement.
Snowe's retirement wasn't just a surprise; it's practically bizarre. After three terms in the Senate, and giving every indication of seeking re-election, Olympia Snowe waited until two weeks before Maine's filing deadline to bow out, and didn't even tell her staff until yesterday afternoon. It all happened so quickly, the senator's office hasn't even posted her announcement online yet.
The news doesn't appear to have been planned at all.
What's more, Snowe's statement is a little cryptic. Instead of the obligatory "spend more time with my family" rhetoric, the senator references "unique opportunities ... outside the United States Senate." What opportunities? She didn't say.
Jon Chait's theory may sound silly, but it's a strange year and ideas that may seem foolish at first blush probably shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.
This sounds exactly like the kind of rhetoric emanating from Americans Elect, the third-party group that believes that both parties should put aside partisanship and come together to enact an ever-so-slightly more conservative version of Barack Obama's agenda. Moderate retiring senators often deliver lofty, vacuous paeans to bipartisanship on their way to a lucrative lobbying career. But Snowe's statement seems unusually specific ("unique opportunities to build support for that change from outside the United States Senate") about her intent to do something.
This strikes me as unlikely, but I guess it's something to keep an eye on.