Taking a road less traveled

As February leaped ahead into March, Maine’s senior Republican, U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, took a startling leap of her own.

Maine voters do not rush blindly to the polls in spring or fall, their heads jammed with signage and television commercials, just to elect senators to represent them in Washington. They invest in the people they choose. They invest with their dreams, their commitment, thoughtful questions, campaign work, money and confidence. And the list of those they have chosen, Republicans and Democrats, particularly in the last half of the 20th century, is a memorable one: U.S. Sens. Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund S. Muskie, George J. Mitchell, William S. Cohen, Snowe and Susan Collins.

Much to their own surprise, Mainers will be facing an exciting and intense battle for a Senate seat again this year.

This wasn’t supposed to be happening. With 33 years in Congress behind her, including three terms in the Senate, Olympia Snowe was widely perceived as unbeatable. And she was -– unless she chose to toss her own hat out of the ring – which on Feb. 28 is exactly what she did.

I don’t blame her for a minute. Snowe has served long and well in a Senate where votes meant something more than obstructionism and headline-making rants. They meant governing. So why settle for a poor imitation now?

The answer is, she shouldn’t. She deserves better. So does the Senate. And so does the country, which established a thoughtful Senate to govern, not to provide endless, well-paid employment for political blowhards whose prime loyalty is to hold onto their jobs.

“After 33 years in the Congress, this was not an easy decision,” Snowe declared. “My husband and I are in good health,” she said of herself and former Maine Gov. John McKernan. “We have laid an exceptionally strong foundation for the campaign, and I have no doubt I would have won re-election.”

At age 65, with more than half her life spent in the national House and Senate, why would she fudge the circumstances under which she is choosing to leave? The answer is, she has not done so.

Most especially, she has not run away from a fight. The woman who learned to deal with tough choices when she was a girl is no stranger to them now. But she is realistic.

“I do find it frustrating,” she said in announcing her withdrawal from the race, “that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions. Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term. So at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate, which is what a fourth term would entail.”

As political bombshells go, it was both loud and colorful.

“I would describe it as chaos,” University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer suggested.

As the first hours ticked by, a dozen potential candidates began talking publicly about entering the race. House members were measuring the landscape. So were some proven statewide vote getters, including former independent Gov. Angus King.

“I had no plans to run for anything,” King told The New York Times. “But Sen. Snowe’s announcement of why she was leaving made me think about giving it a try.”

Across the country, confusion reigned.

“Senator quits after tough choices,” headlined California’s San Jose Mercury News, in words that suggested why else would anyone leave behind a cushy place in the Senate. Unsaid and perhaps even unthought is the prospect that some people would want to leave when they felt the Senate was not doing its job.

“Sen. Snowe wants to focus on bringing down the deficit and getting the economy on track, and that’s where the priorities should be,’’ said Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

Like another famous New Englander, Snowe has chosen a road less traveled by. And that, as Robert Frost knew well, can make all the difference.

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