At a time when protest and resistance are most needed, the bar for both entry and a quick lionization is lowest. John McCain, it has been written many times, is a maverick–despite actually being a party-line toadie. Maine’s Moderate Republican Susan Collins, who gets royalties from that descriptor, probably, is good for grandstanding and bad for anything of significant effect. Recently, her impotent “nay” vote on education secretary Betsy DeVos on the Senate floor followed her “yea” vote within the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee enabling the nomination to move forward; voting “nay” initially would’ve railroaded DeVos’ bid. In doing so, Collins–along with Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who pulled the same flip-flop from the committee to the Senate floor–essentially said she couldn’t endorse DeVos but would do nothing to truly block DeVos. Her “nay” vote merely ensured Mike Pence had something to do on a Tuesday afternoon.
Collins’ protest of DeVos is emblematic of her entire approach: she develops concern at incompetence or extremism. She voices this concern, publicly, in a manner that–especially in this polarized congressional era–establishes herself as “one of the good ones.” Unlike the 99 others on the Senate floor who merely have their Partisan Beliefs, she has Principles, you see.
The problem, of course, is that her protestations are shamelessly, embarrassingly vacuous. She didn’t like the recent executive order that banned Muslims–not as a human rights question, but simply because it was “overly broad.” She wants to have a replacement plan in place for the Affordable Care Act before removing it completely, but she voted for reconciliations that make such a replacement plan nice but not necessary. Her denial of DeVos, in the face of mass call-ins from her constituents, was high-visibility yet low-impact; her few other modest protests of cabinet nominations seem feckless when compared to her “full-throated” endorsement of attorney general Jeff Sessions, a proponent of, um, alt-civil rights.
Let it be noted that Maine is a moderately blue state; while the northern second district swung to Trump in the most recent election, the whole state hasn’t gone to the Republican presidential candidate since 1988. When accounting for senators’ constituent base, as measured by their state’s voting habits in November, Collins is far from bipartisan: during the Trump Administration, according to FiveThirtyEight, she has been the White House’s tenth-biggest ally in the Senate.
And yet, Collins finds herself the beneficiary of fawning newspaper profiles. Here’s the Portland Press Herald calling her a “pivotal…check on Trump.” Here’s the Boston Globe painting her as the steeled metronome of the Senate, refusing to slow in the face of ankle injuries and authoritarians alike. The latter story, in painting Collins’ continued, nominal opposition to Trump, brings up her abject refusal to vote for the current president last November. Her alternative choice? Writing-in speaker of the House Paul Ryan. It is a perfectly on-brand Susan Collins selection: allowing her a superficially dignified position while refusing to upset the apple cart of the Republican base or, you know, actually be of consequence.
I posit that Collins, far from being principled, is one of the least principled members of Congress. She is essentially beholden to no one: she isn’t up for election until 2020, and the last election she won with over 68 percent of the vote. Perhaps more than anyone else in the Senate Collins has a mandate; should she wish to make a stand, she certainly could. But she has shown no willingness to go beyond banal lip service. For someone who is a supposed “check on Trump,” such a hesitancy should be considered an abdication of duty. Her Republican colleagues who willfully enable Trump are craven, yes, but they do so in response to a right-leaning electorate, or because they don’t mind the navigating the savage underworld that politicians must in order to get by. They don’t deal with the Devil and then claim themselves too mature to gamble.