The Tragedy of Susan Collins
It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear. It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership either in the legislative branch or the executive branch of our government… Mr. President, I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States senator. I speak as an American.
Few citizens today will recall the name of Margaret Chase Smith, though she was as indispensable a lion of American politics as the post-war era had to offer. The first woman elected to both houses of Congress — and the first to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major party — she ascended to civic stardom in the darkest days of the Red Scare when, on the first of June, 1950, she rose from her desk on the Senate floor to deliver what would come to be known as the Declaration of Conscience. In terms of scruples-per-minute, few pieces of rhetoric rate higher in American history; Smith’s speech pricked the veil of Republican complicity in McCarthyism and helped stir the nation to turn away a fascist tide.
A moderate Mainer, Margaret Chase Smith was swept from the GOP Olympus long ago. The party’s dead sprint rightward over the years has done as much as time to flush her memory from the modern Republican genome, and today little remains of her in the principles or politics of the 52 senators who bear the scarlet letter R. But one remembers.
Nearly half a century ago, Smith set aside almost two hours to sit with a high school senior from the tiny outpost of Caribou, Maine, one of two students chosen to travel to Washington as part of the Hearst Foundation’s Senate Youth Program. They spoke at length about the challenges facing their home state, Smith’s work on the Armed Services Committee, and the enduring message of her Declaration of Conscience. The eighteen-year-old returned home energized and inspired by the time she had spent with the senator, and, exactly twenty-five years later, Susan Collins won the very same seat once occupied by her hero.
In the decades since, Collins has spoken frequently about Smith’s impact on her life. From time to time, you can even spot her wearing the golden elephant pin — one of her “most treasured possessions” — bequeathed to her by Smith’s family after her death in 1995. Indeed, it is impossible to understand either the purpose of Senator Collins’s career, or the depths of its failure, without considering her relationship to Margaret Chase Smith.
Last week, Senator Collins rose from the very same desk from which Smith railed against Joe McCarthy to cast a crucial vote in favor of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The unconscionable sins of the Republican tax scheme have been well-documented elsewhere; among its senseless crimes against altruism and economics, the new law will result in tax increases for nearly 100 million working Americans while lightening the burdens of corporations and billionaires and exploding the debt to the tune of at least $1.5 trillion. In the weeks the plan spent slinking through Congress, Collins made patently false claims about the impact of the bill on the national debt, broke her promise to vote down any proposal that made cuts to the top income tax rate, and went back on her word not to exacerbate the healthcare expenses of Mainers (the law is expected to gash Medicare and spike health insurance premiums by nearly $2,000 for struggling families back in Caribou), all before trading away her yea for the magic-bean promises of Mitch McConnell, an Olympic-level liar.
To the surprise of no one, the ‘concessions’ Collins claimed to have secured during her well-worn dance of Hamlet-esque hemming and hawing proved immediately to be worthless — the legislation to subsidize high-risk pools and infuse money into state health exchanges McConnell guaranteed her in exchange for her vote evaporated just around the time the words left his mouth. But no matter: she hadn’t been fighting for these measures themselves, but rather for the appearance of influence over her caucus. For Collins, the real goal is always (and only) to secure another merit badge depicting her heroic moderating effect on the Republican Party — something thin she can stitch to her jacket just beside the golden elephant pin.
This was hardly the month that Collins gave up the ghost of Smith’s legacy, but it was her highest-profile grave-spitting to date. Maine’s senior senator has been called a “moderate” so often that the label has become trite — a sort of political maxim. A friend in need is a friend indeed. I before E, except after C. Susan Collins is a moderate. The impression has served Collins wonderfully for years back home: she won her 2014 race in sea-blue Maine with 68 percent of the vote, and Morning Consult’s fall 2017 survey placed her as the fourth-most-popular senator in the nation, with an approval rating of 62 percent.
Even a cursory look at Collins’s record reveals the lie. It turns out that Senator Collins is a moderate in the same sense that Peter Dinklage is a Lannister, which is to say that she plays one on TV for a handful of Sundays each year but is otherwise a figment of your imagination. In 2017 alone, she has cast the decisive vote on bills barring citizens defrauded by financial firms like Wells Fargo from suing their assailants, empowering internet service providers to share consumers’ data without their knowledge or consent, and repealing a rule that required federal contractors to report labor violations. She abetted McConnell’s theft of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat, elevated extremists and grifters like Jeff Sessions and Tom Price, and voted to ensure that energy companies would no longer have to disclose payments to foreign governments. On none of these issues can her stance be justified by any above-board ideology, conservative or otherwise.
Susan Collins has a current “Trump score” — FiveThirtyEight’s measure of how reliably members of Congress fall in line behind the President on key votes — of 81.5 percent. While this makes her the most, ahem, moderate member of her caucus, it also makes her the eighth-most pro-Trump senator after adjusting for the politics of the people she ostensibly represents. The metric is a crude one, but looking at her voting patterns provides a helpful illustration of how Collins tends to wield her supposed moderation.
Take Betsy DeVos (please!). When the impossibly-unqualified billionaire donor’s nomination for Secretary of Education came before the Senate HELP Committee, it was Collins’s vote that broke an 11–11 tie to move her forward, allowing C-SPAN viewers everywhere to get to know DeVos and her airtight case for why public schools need more guns in them (it’s to ward off “potential grizzlies”). Having cast the vote that mattered, Collins was free to engage in her favorite bit of performance art: a junior varsity rendition of the Declaration of Conscience, with a homespun twist for the moms and dads back in Maine.
“I’m concerned that Mrs. Devos’s lack of experience with public schools will make it difficult for her to fully understand, identify, and assist with those challenges — particularly for our rural schools in states like Maine,” Collins declared from the well of the Senate. “I will not… I cannot… vote to confirm her as our nation’s next Secretary of Education.”
Collins received accolades for her principled stand on the matter, but — wouldn’t you know it — DeVos was confirmed anyway, with a Mike Pence tiebreaker sealing the deal. Not long after her act wrapped up, Hill Republicans confided to reporters from Politico that Senator Collins had waited to reveal her righteous opposition to DeVos until leadership was certain that they didn’t need her vote to confirm.
Herein lies the modus operandi of Susan Collins: partisan when it matters, and principled when it couldn’t matter less. And though she has become adept at picking moments here and there to demonstrate that she is capable of standing up for the people she serves — her short-lived healthcare heroism being the most notable example — her inability to imagine public service as a skin you wear rather than a costume you put on for the cameras has left her incapable of carrying on the legacy of her childhood hero. Once thought of as the center of our national politics, she has revealed herself to be little more than the vestigial tail of a Republican caucus bolting away from that center — well-distanced from its foaming mouth, but never really far behind.
It’s possible that an 18-year-old Susan Collins went home to Caribou dreaming that she would one day help transfer mountains of money from her friends and neighbors to the wealthiest heirs of the nation, but I doubt it. More likely, she aspired to be the guardian not only of an endangered strain of Republican ideology, but of Republican dignity in the face of sheer madness as well. She probably hoped to lead as much from the pure center of our civic morality as she did from the center of our politics. And she almost certainly longed to uphold the wisdom of the Declaration of Conscience, which warned us so presciently: I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear… Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.
Susan Collins is a Republican. No one is asking her to be anything else. But the least we can ask — the least we must insist — is that she not actively abet the GOP in extinguishing what’s left of Smith’s flame. The choice to stand with Donald Trump 50 percent of the time (to say nothing of 81.5 percent) is no more the choice of a principled moderate than the choice to jump halfway off of a bridge. And that is precisely where Susan Collins finds herself today, flailing wildly to justify brazen middle fingers to the middle class at a moment that calls for declarations of conscience more than any in recent memory.
As Maine voters turn on her — and it has already begun — Collins will come to regret her swan dive into the depths of partisan depravity. Presented with a fresh McCarthy, she cowered where Smith stood tall. And as Democrats win elections and Trumpists tighten their grip on the GOP, the only one facing extinction now is her: the voice of the once-proud moderate, trembling into irrelevance.