Here’s the thing about reading Senator Olympia Snowe’s book: It’s not a very fun thing to do. That’s because the retired Maine Republican pulls off the remarkable feat of spending 281 pages telling people, in short, that they should follow No Labels on Twitter. Okay, that might not be entirely fair. But so you get a better sense of how this book unfolds, here are a few quotes that exemplify the level of insight present in Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress, Snowe’s new memoir-treatise-No Labels infomercial:
“I am intrigued by others’ perspectives because examining them can make your own sturdier.”
“Cable news networks and radio programming often promote an ideological worldview that is sharply critical of, and sometimes hostile to, opposing viewpoints.”
“In short, we need to listen.”
“We’re in this together because America is not defined by just the red or the blue, but by the red, white, and blue.”
“It’s amazing the positive things that can happen when you get people talking in a room together!”
If you find comfort in the assurance and reassurance and re-reassurance that Senator Olympia Snowe thinks and has always thought that the good of America should supersede the good of the Republican Party, then this book will provide you with hours of unmitigated delight. If, however, you suspect that the “the place of burned bridges and scorched earth” to which Congress has been reduced may be the result of fundamental differences of opinion between Americans, which they reflect when they vote, then you may perhaps find Fighting for Common Ground a teensy bit quixotic.
The book’s penultimate sentence actually goes so far as to consciously invoke cliché: “The American people want them [Congress] to find common ground –– to fight their way toward it –– confident in the truism that there is nothing we can’t accomplish together.”
That’s basically the crux of the book: that militant kumbaya-ism is the cure for what ails us. The odd thing about the sentence I just quoted from, though, is that Snowe never addresses some of the assumptions upon which her thesis is predicated –– such as, for instance, the assumption that Agreement is hiding out somewhere in Washington, laying in wait for a few good men and women to ferret it out and save it from the clutches of the Big Bad Partisans who are trying to destroy America because they like their little political clubs so much. Snowe never acknowledges that some differences on really important issues regarding our country’s future may actually be irreconcilable, or that voting on public-policy decisions based on ideologically informed understandings of human nature — instead of, say, based on the compulsion to pass as many laws as possible — isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world.
So rather than deal with petty things like irreconcilable differences, Snowe, truisms in tow, crusades for the dogma of togetherness and getting along.
Her affinity for No Labels — a group she plugs in the final chapter of her book — is emblematic of this curiously unwavering faith in things like the transformational power of sitting next to someone from the opposite party for an hour a year during the State of the Union. In a call to arms in the book’s final chapter, Snowe exhorts readers to join up with a number of advocacy groups that are ostensibly fighting for common ground; she includes No Labels, citing its citizen-training workshops. I attended one of these workshops back in January, and chronicled that interesting experience in this piece. At one point during that event, No Labels supporters appeared on stage holding signs that said “Stop Fighting” and “Start Fixing.” If you think waving a placard that says “Stop Fighting” sounds like an effective way to get people to stop fighting, you’ll love Fighting for Common Ground.
That’s not to say all of Snowe’s prescriptions (including open primaries, “No Budget. No Pay,” and five-day congressional work weeks) are wrongheaded or dumb or necessarily bad ideas. Snowe is a serious person making serious arguments, and they deserve to be taken seriously. But what’s odd about her book-endeavor is that the retired senator seems completely convinced that if everybody just made friends with one another and put country ahead of party for once, then all the problems would be solved. That strikes me as hyperopic. I haven’t been Washington very long, so maybe I’m not the person to say this, but I suspect that one thing legislators from all across the political spectrum can all come together and agree on is that the debt crisis was not precipitated by a dearth of bipartisan dinner parties.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.