As Susan Collins seeks a fifth US Senate term, the debate in Maine runs this way: Has Collins changed over her quarter-century in the Senate, or has the nature of politics changed?
The former is the preferred political narrative of those who want to see Collins replaced. That interpretation lets independents and Democrats who have backed her in the past switch sides without having to acknowledge, if only to themselves, that their past support was misplaced.
Yet the latter is closer to the truth. The country is far more polarized, the political battles fiercer, the consequences greater than when Collins was first elected, back in 1996. The political center, which Collins occasionally occupies, has all but disappeared. As a result, though Collins sometimes casts votes that cross party lines, on most major matters she is not effective at building a middle way or catalyzing cross-party compromise. Nor has she proved a moderating force on the tone and tenor of national politics.
In considerable part, that’s because of President Trump and his divide-to-conquer tactics. Her regular votes for Trump jurists and GOP policies have enabled this norm-shattering Republican president far more than her occasional opposition or mild-mannered expressions of concern have tempered his authoritarian conduct.
Certainly Trump’s politically marauding behavior has rendered laughable Collins’s justification for voting against his removal from office. The president obviously has not learned a “pretty big lesson” from his impeachment. From calling to “liberate” states whose governors were not reopening on his hurry-up pandemic-recovery schedule to intimating that he might not leave office if he loses the election, Trump has demonstrated he has learned little or nothing.
But Collins’s problem extends well beyond Trump. By supporting Mitch McConnell for Senate majority leader, the Maine Republican has enabled a win-at-all-cost gamesmanship that has broken the Senate and is corrosive to reasonable governance. Under McConnell, the Senate has done very little meaningful oversight of the Trump administration. If Trump wins reelection and the Senate stays in Republican hands, nothing there will change. If Democrat Joe Biden wins, we should expect the same kind of obstructionism McConnell engineered against Barack Obama.
Nothing demonstrates that as vividly as the Republican Senate’s recent handling of Supreme Court nominees. It was McConnell who sprang the plan to prevent Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, from getting either a hearing or a vote, supposedly because 2016 was a presidential election year. Although Collins met with Garland and said he should receive a hearing, she was neither forceful nor persistent on the matter.
The same is true now that McConnell has reversed himself and declared the Senate will confirm a new high-court justice in this election year.
Collins offered a mild demurral, but to no discernible effect. Her carefully calibrated statement said that though the winner of the presidential election should ultimately fill the seat, she didn’t object to the Senate reviewing a Trump nominee’s qualifications. She has since added that she won’t vote for a nominee before the election. (She has not specifically stated how she would vote if Trump loses — or if Trump wins reelection but Republicans lose control of the Senate — but still tries to push through a new justice between Election Day and the inauguration.)
That odd and evolving formulation is far short of the strong, forceful leadership these times demand.
Her stance certainly didn’t give Trump pause. He responded by trying to make Collins feel political heat, saying: “I think that Susan Collins is going to be hurt very badly — her people aren’t going to take this.”
When it comes to fiscal issues, moderates who have backed Collins in the past have further cause to be frustrated with her. In the depths of the Great Recession, a slowdown that sent unemployment up to 10.6 percent, Collins helped force a penny-wise, pound-foolish paring back of Obama’s stimulus plan, insisting on the removal of $19 billion for school construction and $870 million in pandemic-preparation funds from the package, which ultimately came in at about $835 billion.
However, the senator’s fiscal concerns weren’t in evidence in 2017, when Republicans passed a large tax cut aimed at corporations and the wealthy, at a cost to the Treasury of $1.8 trillion over a decade. That bill also eliminated the Affordable Care Act’s penalty for those who don’t purchase health insurance, effectively gutting the individual mandate.
Collins says the penalty fell on those who couldn’t afford it.
But nixing the penalty has given ACA opponents legal leverage for their latest lawsuit intended to kill the landmark health care law. So although Collins had previously voted against repealing the ACA outright, her support for the tax-cut legislation has aided the GOP effort to destroy the law.
Collins said at the time she had won a commitment for two ACA-stabilization bills in exchange. Those measures went nowhere. The Trump administration has since officially joined the legal effort to kill Obamacare.
The loss of that law would be a tough blow for Maine. Some 45,000 Mainers have been covered by the ACA’s expanded Medicaid program; another 60,000 have purchased coverage through the state’s ACA exchange, with almost 90 percent qualifying for tax subsidies. And in a state with 1.3 million people, more than 500,000 have benefitted from the law’s protections for preexisting conditions.
The issues for Mainers who have long backed Collins, then, are two-fold. First, she isn’t the forceful, outspoken senator these times require. Second, she enables Trump and McConnell, whose agendas do not line up with Maine’s needs.
Once a bipartisan favorite in Maine, Collins is now locked in a tight contest with Democrat Sara Gideon, who as the speaker of the Maine House has made kitchen-table issues and climate change her focus. Collins, who tries to avoid or finesse polarizing national issues, has been underscoring her authorship of the Paycheck Protection Program and the individual actions she has taken for Mainers and their communities.
Yet Mainers are right to think that the national picture is more important. Collins is no longer a good fit for Maine. Not in these turbulent times.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.