On the announcement of her retirement, Olympia Snowe is taking some flak around my preferred corner of the internet for her failure to use her substantial power as one of the few Senate centrists to any real effect.
I'm of two minds about this issue. I think it's easy to overstate the degree of leeway she really had to vote her conscious or principles or whatever on the big bills of the last 10 years. If she had voted against the Bush tax cuts, for instance, it's hard to see a scenario where the reprisals would not have come fast and hard. Can you imagine her trying to fundraise after that? She would almost certainly have been persona non grata in her party.
The recent post about Rick Santorum is apropos here: senators have to swallow their principles and take one for the team sometimes. A president's signature bill is an example of such a moment. Frankly I don't see how she could have done much more than insist on a slightly smaller budgetary apocalypse. Who throws themselves on their sword over tax cuts?
That being said, Olympia Snowe was also much more of a party apparatchik and saboteur than she's willing to admit. She negotiated in bad faith during the Affordable Care Act episode, for instance, constantly changing the terms for her vote as Obama repeatedly met her demands. Contra Yglesias and Chait, I think she was terrifically effective there at thoroughly diluting that legislation, but her way of doing it was underhanded, stringing the Democrats along and pretending like she was open to compromise when she wasn't. She's never been honest with us about her actions, which were clearly to delay, delay, delay until the midterms, when the bill could just be killed altogether.
Had Reid and Obama not eventually wised up and forced her to take a stand, that very likely would have happened, and all the terrible practices of the insurance industry would still be perpetuated upon America's poor and middle class to this day.