Another Trump Casualty: The Myth of Susan Collins

by Neil H. Buchanan

[Note to readers: I had planned to write the fourth of my "How Bad Will Things Become?" columns today, discussing various areas of the law that likely-future-Justice Brett Kavanaugh and his right-wing colleagues might mangle for partisan purposes.  That column will, unless intervening events require further delay, be published next Tuesday, September 18.]

[Update on 9/18: Surprise!  Or not.  Intervening events indeed require further delay.  Part Four of "How Bad Will Things Become?" is now rescheduled to 9/20.]

Two weeks ago, a Washington Post columnist wrote, "Rest in Peace, Lindsey Graham."  It was brutal, making the point that Graham had gone from being the late John McCain's best bud to being Donald Trump's aggressive point man in the Senate, even though Graham's current persona requires ignoring everything that McCain -- and Graham himself -- had said and believed to be true about Trump.

It is a rather amazing thing that someone so lacking in core convictions not only thought he should be the president but that the political press treated him as a brave, independent-minded teller of hard truths.  Yes, the thought went, Graham is a hard-right hawk and a movement conservative, but he's funny and honest and you know where he stands.  And now Graham spends his time running interference for Trump.

The Trump era is not lacking in examples of people bending themselves into pretzels to survive.  Even McCain himself, as I wrote last week, was anti-Trump more in theory than reality, and he (along with all of his colleagues) again and again proved that the defense of institutions and nonpartisan ideals was no match for their glee in checking items off of the hardcore conservative wish list.

Yesterday, news emerged that Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who has managed -- against all evidence -- to maintain a reputation as a moderate and a voice of reason, is now being targeted for a reelection challenge.  There is nothing notable about a politician facing an opponent -- that being what elections are all about -- but this challenge is explicitly contingent on Collins's vote on the Kavanaugh nomination.

That story is mildly interesting, and I will discuss it momentarily.  My primary focus here, however, is on Collins's crumbling facade of reasonableness and affability.  Many of us have seen all along that her image is a peculiarly indefensible myth, and it now appears that she is revealing her inner hack, unable to handle the pressure that comes with being confronted with her own hypocrisy.

To this point in the Kavanaugh nomination, Collins has had some very bad days, especially for those who wanted to believe that there are still reasonable moderates in the Republican Party.  The political problem for her is that she has always claimed to be in favor of protecting reproductive rights, a stance that is not only popular politically but that gave her the added boost of being "the rare Republican" (as news items would favorably phrase it) who was not in lockstep with the religious right.  A moderate!

That is a political problem now because she is faced with her second straight Supreme Court nominee who is not only an obvious vote to restrict women's control over their own bodies but who was explicitly chosen for being a reliably anti-choice vote.  When it comes to overruling Roe v. Wade, Trump and his judge-picking advisors are taking no chances.  And everyone knows it.

Collins's response has been to dance like few have danced before.  She has issued the usual expressions of "concern," but she has said very positive things after meeting with Kavanaugh and has said that she is buying the nominee's "Roe is settled law" dodge (which Professor Dorf, among others, has exposed as utter nonsense).

Collins did not take much flak for her vote in favor of Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the Court last year, even though he too is an obvious vote against women's reproductive freedom, apparently because he was not going to be the decisive vote.  More surprisingly, Collins's reputation as an independent, moderate voice was never challenged even when she went along with the Republicans in ending the filibuster for Court nominees, and she similarly skated away from any blame for not fighting her party's theft of a Supreme Court seat or its embargo on lower-court nominees under President Obama.

Now, however, the proverbial mud might finally be hitting the fan.  Groups of outraged Mainers, including left-leaning voters who nonetheless bought into the myth of Collins, are saying that the upcoming vote on Kavanaugh is a make-or-break moment.  If she votes to confirm, she will be challenged for reelection in 2020 by a well funded candidate to be determined later.  If she votes against Kavanaugh, however, these groups will stand down.

This being 2018, the mechanics of this movement involve a go-fund-me approach.  As a Post article describes it, organizers have arranged an on-line system that allows people to make a donation to a future challenger to Collins, but donors are allowed to do so with the guarantee that their money will not be taken if Collins votes against Kavanaugh.

One might think that this kind of contingent arrangement would be seen as a positive thing.  Voters are not giving money to a group for a purpose that might never become necessary, and they are able to build a simple contingency into their donation: If Collins votes for Kavanaugh, I don't want her to be my senator anymore.  Otherwise, everything's cool.

How has Collins responded?  With self-righteous outrage, of course.  How dare anyone try to tell her how to vote?!  In her exact words: "Attempts at bribery or extortion will not influence my vote at all."

What?  It is bribery or extortion for voters to say to a political candidate that her vote or votes will change their decisions about whom to fund and support?  I guess the Koch brothers had better think about how they look in orange jumpsuits.

Seriously, the argument that this is bribery is so tenuous as to be laughable.  The Post dutifully notes that "[a]t least one ethics expert consulted by The Washington Post said that it may very well violate federal bribery statutes, which prohibit giving or offering anything of value to government officials in exchange for any acts or votes."  Apparently, the "thing of value" in this case is not giving something of value to a potential opponent.  As another source put it: "It still seems like they’re saying if you don’t do what we want we will spend $1 million and that strikes me as just as much as an inducement as saying we'll give you $1 million if you do what we want."

Again, however, if that is bribery, then everything is bribery.  Telling people that there are consequences to voting one way or another is not just what politics is about but what large parts of everyday life are all about.  The Post's article offers expert rebuttals of the bribery claim, too, leaving the reader to draw the obvious conclusion.

That is not to say that this gambit is likely to work.  This predictably got Collins's back up, and her office issued a statement saying that "Senator Collins will make up her mind based on the merits of the nomination. Threats or other attempts to bully her will not play a factor in her decision making whatsoever."  Ooh, those bullies, with their votes and donations!

But of course deciding on the merits is exactly what she has not done, which might be why the Maine groups were willing to publicly challenge her in a way that is likely not to change her vote.  Collins decided a long time ago that she is going to be part of the Republican rubber-stamp program, and Kavanaugh is just the latest example of that.  If she actually were to cast her vote "based on the merits of the nomination," then a pro-choice independently-minded moderate from a blue-ish state would clearly vote no.

As I have written before, Kavanaugh is so conservative that even most Republicans should reject him.  Collins even has an ironclad reason to do so, the ability to say that "I have always said that abortion rights are too fundamental to trade away." but she is instead doing the bidding of Trump and the hard right.

What seems to gall Collins about all of this is that she is being exposed for her hypocrisy.  Even the article in The Post that described the non-bribery gambit begins with this: "In the closely divided senate, Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hinges in part on the votes of two moderate Republican senators: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine."  (The idea that Murkowski is a moderate is even more laughable than the Collins mythology, but I digress.)

That is the kind of kid-gloves treatment that Collins has come to expect.  Unfortunately for her, even that same article notes that "Collins has a reputation as a centrist though she is a mostly reliable Republican voter," which seriously understates the reality.

As I have written over again and again, Collins's centrism is all talk and no action.  In my column last week about McCain, for example, I noted that Collins and Murkowski had announced their votes against repealing the Affordable Care Act when doing so seemed safe -- votes that would not tip the balance, allowing them to maintain their images as non-ideologues even as the vice president broke the presumptive tie vote and thus ended the ACA.  It was only McCain's last-second thumbs down that turned the other two into "heroes," and even if they could have changed their votes, the only politically sustainable move at that point was to stand pat.

Even if that interpretation is too cynical, however, recall that Collins has actually claimed that tax cuts pay for themselves, which absolutely no independent economic analysis has ever verified and which puts her firmly in league with the most right-wing thinking in the Republican Party.  Her vote for the 2017 tax bill was especially annoying given that she had said that she could not support Hillary Clinton because Clinton would be too fiscally reckless.

Last month, a New York Times columnist wrote: "Susan Collins Tends to Her Image," describing the unusual lengths to which Collins goes to keep her unsupportable image as a moderate alive.  I can add that, in more than ten years writing columns like this one, I have been contacted by exactly one staffer from the office of a U.S. Representative or Senator, and that person was from Susan Collins's office.  Responding to a column in which I had criticized Collins, I was told nothing that contradicted anything that I wrote.  I did learn, however, that Collins is "the 2nd most popular Senator in America."

Self-regard is hardly a scarce commodity in the U.S. Capitol.  Collins, however, seems to thrive on an especially lofty self-image that she has now all but completely undermined.  The reckoning is surely unpleasant.