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Olympia Snowe and the Death of the Moderate Republican

Snowe's decision to retire illuminates a harsh truth: moderate Republicans have become a dying breed.

Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, two rare moderate Republicans.

Olympia Snowe, one of two moderate Republican woman senators from Maine, announced her retirement yesterday. The 65-year-old is in good health and was confident she would be re-elected; she blamed "an atmosphere of polarization" and "'my way or the highway' ideologies" for her abrupt departure. Pundits are declaring the move a win for the Democrats, who now have a chance to replace her seat in one of the bluest states around, undermining the GOP's aspiration of claiming the Senate in 2012.

But more importantly, Snowe's decision serves as another data point in a troubling trend that has taken hold since President Obama was elected: moderate Republicans have become a dying breed. The current Republican party has swung so far to the right that—amid a presidential race where Rick Santorum actually has a chance and Mitt Romney renounces any remotely moderate decision from his past—politicians like Snowe are excluded from the conversation more than ever. As Jonathan Chait writes in this week's New York magazine, the GOP has opted not to address the reality of an electorate whose demographics increasingly skew liberal, deciding instead to pull out all the stops in an attempt to create such a conservative status quo that Democrats will be forced to play catch-up for years. That leaves no role for people like Snowe, who built her career on reaching across the aisle.

Obama wasted no time seizing this opportunity to underline his own political philosophy, which has been slandered as some sort of left-wing conspiracy rather than textbook centrism. Yesterday, he celebrated Snowe for pushing the national conversation forward and showing the value of teamwork. Snowe herself had some far less romantic wisdom for her own party in 2009: "Ultimately, we're heading to having the smallest political tent in history, the way events have been unfolding. If the Republican Party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle." Translation: It's a lot less painful to ride out the tide than to try in vain to turn it.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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