The politics of girls
Perhaps Snowe and Collins found moral considerations wanting when weighed against the demands of their political careers. It’s not as though they didn’t have a window of opportunity to diss the president’s second SCOTUS nominee. Lincoln Chafee, Republican senator from Rhode Island, announced his opposition to Alito on January 30. Snowe and Collins wielded considerable power on this issue as members of the Gang of 14, a bipartisan group of moderate senators who brokered a compromise arrangement for handling the dreaded SCOTUS-confirmation process. And in 2005 Forbes magazine named Snowe one of the 100 most powerful women in the country. It’s true that, had Maine’s senators opposed Alito in a filibuster or even simply insisted on voting against him, it would have caused a media circus and made them a target for retribution from a president who doesn’t shrink from payback. But it would have also given the GOP fair warning that moderate votes against reproductive choice — for the sake of party unity — could no longer be taken for granted.
But since Snowe and Collins chose not to deliver this shot across the bow, their future is bright. Both appeared on a list of eight women the White House Project believes could be presidential-candidate material in 2008. Collins, who was first elected to the Senate in 1996, is becoming a powerful senator in her own right as chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and an adviser to Senator John McCain as he considers a second run for the big house. Snowe, who joined the Senate in 1994, is up for re-election this fall. Sticking with the party could just be a political move for votes, although that’s hard to fathom in a state with some of the most liberal abortion laws in the country.
“Certainly two women on an issue would have gotten a lot of attention nationally and caused a major crisis in a way making them ineffective in the Republican caucus forever,” says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and former director of the Center for the American Women and Politics from 1971 through 1994. “There are moments and there are issues when it is easier for members of one party or the other to vote on the other side but it’s usually not a moment when it’s a key, highly visible, highly charged national issue when every vote not only counts, but every vote is noticed.”
“This was a test for Snowe and Collins,” says Susan Feiner, director of the women’s-studies program at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. “I think this shows their fundamental allegiance to the anti-feminist position of the Republican Party. The Republican Party, in the last 15 years, has more and more stood for reversing the gains that women have struggled with for hundreds of years.”
The Republican Party of Smith’s political career was a much different animal than it is today. Before 1976, when then-senator Bob Dole lobbied to put a pro-life plank into the party platform, it was as common for Republicans to be pro-choice as it was for them to be pro-life. Smith, along with many of the early Republican women, was staunchly pro-choice. And even after Dole added it to the platform, Republicans for Choice’s Stone says the abortion issue wasn’t that big a deal until evangelicals changed the party in the 1980s (several years after Snowe won her first seat, in the Maine House).