The last weekend in July, Maine’s senior U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was at her camp on Cold Stream Pond in Enfield while her party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, was on television, attacking the parents of Humayun Khan – a U.S. Army captain killed protecting his men from an approaching car bomb in Iraq – and suggesting he had sacrificed as much for his country by employing people.
For Collins, it was the final straw, another indication that Trump was dangerously unfit for office, along with his mocking of a disabled reporter and his assertion that an Indiana-born judge couldn’t preside over a case involving Trump University on account of his Mexican ancestry. She had been a Jeb Bush supporter, but now knew she could not cast a ballot for this man. “I felt compelled to speak out,” she recalls.
And speak she did, in a Washington Post op-ed denouncing Trump as a cruel, disrespectful and ill-informed figure who lacked “the temperament, self-discipline and judgment required to be president.” He lacked respect for “the constitutional separation of powers, the very foundation of our form of government” or the self-control needed to avoid “disputes spinning out of control.”
Five months later, Trump is president, his party is in control of both houses of Congress and all three branches of government, and Collins is in a vital but uncomfortable position: the most moderate member of the majority caucus of the Senate, the body most likely to constrain the new president’s excesses, be it by legislation, investigation, or confirmation hearings. She’s spoken out against his immigration ban, his omission of any mention of Jews in his Holocaust remembrance statement, his appointment of former Breitbart News executive director Stephen Bannon to the National Security Council and his nomination of billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Her office is flooded with phone calls and visitors, her every vote followed by journalists, her actions simultaneously praised and condemned by millions, in real time, on social media.
“The Senate is our only hope for keeping some constraints in place, both for really bad policy and a descent that could lead to authoritarianism,” says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a prominent critic of Trump. “This is first and foremost about protecting the Republic but also about protecting the Republican Party from being destroyed by a group of demagogues.”
The Maine Sunday Telegram spoke with a dozen observers of U.S. politics, including scholars, political scientists, former Collins staffers and the senator herself, to explore how she sees her and the Senate’s role vis-à-vis the Trump administration, and what is at stake for the country as a whole. Most agreed that Collins’ longstanding commitment to defending the Senate’s deliberative tradition and her willingness to build centrist partnerships will be invaluable in the months and years ahead, and that the stakes are very high.
“I don’t feel that I am playing a new role in this administration,” Collins says. “I’ve always tried to bring people together and solve problems, and that’s not easy. But I will say that the pressure and pace of this since we came back into session in January have been extraordinary.”
Unenforced, ‘Constitution is just a piece of paper’
Sarah Kendizor, a St. Louis-based scholar of Uzbekistan, is becoming a fixture on cable news because she successfully predicted so much about Trump’s actions months in advance, drawn from years of studying and living in that authoritarian Central Asian state. “The Constitution is just a piece of paper unless it’s upheld in practice, but I think a lot of Americans have taken our rights for granted and the strength of our institutions for granted,” she says. “What we’re seeing now is the speed at which democracy can be undone.”
In his first two weeks in office, Trump has alienated foreign allies and his own intelligence services, tweet-threatened China, Mexico, Iran and Chicago, issued an executive order that discriminates against Muslims and thus may not be constitutional, impugned the legitimacy of the federal judge who blocked it, and demanded Americans disbelieve their own eyes to accept his claims about the size of his inauguration crowds. His top aides have threatened journalists, while others are leaking information to them like crazy, apparently panicked over how policies are being made.
“Whatever your opinion about his intentions, it’s very clear that he’s making decisions without communicating with experts in the field, lawyers and career civil servants,” says Brian Duff, chairman of the University of New England’s political science department. “No president before has ever more needed an institution that can slow him down and think critically about what he’s doing.”
Ornstein remembers the fear and uncertainty of the Watergate crisis, when nobody was certain whether then-President Nixon – paranoid and, as declassified tapes have shown, unhinged – would relinquish power peacefully if impeached. But he notes that Congress wasn’t as militantly partisan as it is today, and White House aides “frequently deep-sixed outrageous, unconstitutional or illegal things that Nixon ordered them to do.” He has no confidence anyone around Trump would do the same, and he says the Supreme Court is less likely to provide checks as it did in 1973.
“I have no confidence that you will get any kind of independent check from the leadership of the House, and the (Democratic) minority there is pretty much powerless,” he adds. “So much of this will devolve to the Senate.”
Collins bombarded with calls, attention
This is where Susan Collins comes in. The Senate – with its power to block or confirm the president’s Cabinet and judicial nominees, conduct investigations, and legislate – has a thin 52-48 Republican majority, including Collins and a handful of senators who’ve on occasion bucked their leadership to defeat initiatives they found excessive or to come up with bipartisan compromises. That’s why Collins’ phone lines have been overwhelmed for much of the past week: Seeing her as potentially swayable, callers across the country have been bombarding her staff with their desires regarding Cabinet nominees and the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act.
“The advantage for those not following the herd is that they will have some leverage because few people are moving over to the other side,” says Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. “Right now Collins can probably hold Trump hostage for a vote and get a yuuuge new naval facility built in Maine for her vote.”
As of Friday morning, 88.9 percent of Collins’ votes have been in accord with Trump’s and her party leadership’s wishes since Trump took office, according to a tracker set up by FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism outlet led by Nate Silver. But voting against one’s party is unusual – presumably members agree with most of what their party stands for – and that record actually makes her the second least “Trump-loyal” Senate Republican after Rand Paul of Kentucky. After she casts her vote against education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, the billionaire Michigan charter school and voucher advocate, she may well be first. The other 50 Republican senators have displayed 100 percent loyalty to date.
“So many Republicans are afraid of their own voters, and the Republican base likes Trump a whole hell of a lot more than the Republican House and Senate caucuses do,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Sabato’s Crystal Ball political newsletter at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But while Senate Republicans may not like Trump, they also recognize that they are in this together, that if he sinks then they may sink, too.”
Collins is relatively free in this regard. She’s the most popular politician in her state – and the second most popular senator in the country after Bernie Sanders – and is not up for re-election until 2020. Maine voted for Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 points, so there’s much less of a political price to pay for defying him than there would be if she were representing ruby-red Kentucky or Alabama.
“My guess is that she’s not thinking too much about the electoral politics and she’s genuinely deeply concerned about this administration and the direction this could take,” Duff says. “But even though the Democrats see her as their last best hope, she’s a Republican, and she’s going to have conservative ideas.”
Whenever asked about her role models, Collins has always mentioned two Republican senators from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith (whom she met as a Caribou High School senior) and William Cohen (for whom she served as a staffer for her first 12 years after graduating from college). Both are famous for confronting rogue figures from their own party: Smith for being the first senator to challenge anti-communist zealot Joseph McCarthy; Cohen for, as a first-term House member, being one of the first Republicans to back Nixon’s impeachment.
Defending Senate role and norms
There’s one critical aspect of Collins’ conservatism: It’s most clearly and consistently expressed in her commitment and reverence for the institutional role and the traditional values of the Senate itself, a famously deliberative body where comity, respect and fair play among members once reigned.
“She really believes in the process and that you should abide by the rules, and I think in these really intense political times, one of the things that really screws up things in the House and the Senate is when the parties start abandoning the structures and the rules,” says Lance Dutson, a former Collins campaign and Senate staffer who is now a political consultant.
“I guard the prerogatives of Congress and believe strongly in the separation of powers,” Collins herself says, citing times she’s spoken out against executive overreach by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, even when she actually supported the goals each president was trying to achieve by his efforts. “I believe I’ve been consistent from administration to administration in that area.”
Last week she denounced Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration, which includes directives to prefer non-Muslims, saying “religious tests serve no useful purpose in the immigration process and run contrary to our American values.” While three dozen other Republican members of Congress also expressed reservations, few were as direct as Collins. The vast majority said nothing or, like House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, expressed support.
Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine, agrees that Collins is a strong defender of fair play in the Senate, but says her political decisions are more difficult to predict. “In some ways she’s an institutionalist and wants to preserve the regular rules of the body and have the system work internally,” she says. “It’s a little unclear, though, what the bright lines would be for her when actually voting on an issue.”
Accused of voting both sides of an issue
Collins skeptics argue the senator is a chameleon who makes many political decisions based on the political climate around her rather than a firm set of ideals, which makes them fearful that she can’t be relied on to challenge Trump’s excesses .
In this regard, there’s probably no more diligent critic than Dan Aibel, a New York City playwright and political junkie who has spent the past decade tracking and critiquing her every move on his Collins Watch blog. “Collins has long approached controversial issues with the aim of coming as close to occupying both sides of them as possible,” he says via email. “Sometimes this results in blatant hypocrisy,” he adds, noting she voted in this way on defunding Planned Parenthood or stripping the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate carbon “while insisting that her vote isn’t intended to achieve exactly the effect it’s certain to have.”
Critics have long lists of such votes, including announcing she will oppose DeVos’ candidacy as education secretary when it comes to a full vote Monday, while voting not to block her candidacy in committee. Or putting forward an amendment to ensure the Affordable Care Act isn’t repealed before a replacement can be found but, once it was defeated by her colleagues, voting for the measure that would enable that very outcome.
“If you didn’t stop something from moving forward and then you voted against it, sometimes the initial vote was the one of greater consequence,” Fried says. “Sometimes I think the Maine and national press isn’t aware of that dynamic when covering Collins.”
Collins and her staff strongly disagree with these sorts of assessments, arguing they are based on misunderstanding of the arcane machinations of the U.S. Senate. Collins, they say, is consistent in wanting to allow important measures, even those she opposes, to be deliberated and voted on by all senators. Other times, the most effective way to advance her own amendment is by voting for motions that, on the face of it, appear to be inconsistent with her stated goals.
“Senator Collins will at times vote to proceed to legislation that she may oppose because she believes that it should be the pending business of the Senate,” says her spokeswoman, Annie Clark. “Sometimes she is supporting alternative legislation, and proceeding … is the best way to get an alternative amendment considered.”
Collins says she believes the full Senate should get its say on Cabinet and judicial nominations, which is why she voted for committee approval for Obama nominees Chuck Hagel (for defense secretary) and Tom Perez (for labor) even as she voted against them on the Senate floor, and is doing the same for DeVos. “I believe that in most cases the full Senate should have the opportunity to work its will,” she says, noting she opposed the Democrats’ successful 2013 effort to, in effect, eliminate filibusters for most nominees, something she says they now regret. “I stood up for the Senate institutions and didn’t think that was right.”
Ornstein notes that Collins’ room to maneuver is influenced by her colleagues. “We shouldn’t make the mistake of putting the entire burden on Susan Collins,” he says. “It becomes particularly difficult if on so many of these votes there are only three Republicans, because then you will see Hannity, Trump, Bannon, Breitbart and a host of others going after her full bore. It’s a totally different proposition if there are eight or 10 Republicans saying, ‘This is not acceptable. We’re drawing the line here.’ ”
How will she proceed in the Trump Era? Same as she always has, the senator says.
“My approach is guided by my instincts from Maine to try to apply common sense and be pragmatic and try to solve problems rather than try to pursue partisan political points,” she says. “I don’t think the people of Maine want me to spend my time contributing to gridlock and trying to slash and burn and be extensively critical of every action that’s taken by the other party.
“They’re more pragmatic than that and they know that compromise often leads to the best solution.”
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: