Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ new television ad reminds me of the opening credits of one of my favorite shows: “The West Wing.” It has uplifting music, soft-focus shots of government buildings and American flags, and lots of bright spots of lens flare. Also, just like “The West Wing,” the story the ad tells is entirely fictional.

The commercial tries to paint Sen. Collins as a standard-bearer for reason and rationality during the 2013 government shutdown debate. The truth is very different.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

In early October last year, Collins did push back against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and the other tea party extremists who wanted to shut down the government, but in closed-door meetings with other Senate Republicans, her main complaint was one of politics, not policy. CNN reports that in those meetings Collins repeatedly “spoke about some of the ads in Maine that said she was not conservative enough, blaming Cruz for helping to divide the party.”

Publicly, Collins said that she opposed shutting down government, but perhaps mindful of those ads, when it came time to vote on the bills that caused the shutdown, Collins sided with Cruz. Democrats wanted a “clean” Continuing Resolution that would continue funding the government, but Collins and Cruz voted for a “dirty” one, tying the continued operation of government to a defunding of the Affordable Care Act – the main goal of the tea party.

After this tactic caused the shutdown, Maine’s other U.S. senator, independent Angus King, took a bold stand for rationality in government and against giving in to the extreme right.

“This is an attempt to rewrite a major piece of substantive law through holding the government hostage,” King said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Police and intelligence people and military officers tell you that you don’t negotiate with hostage takers. The reason you don’t is because you empower, you enable, and you ensure that it will happen again.”

Collins ignored this warning from her colleague. Instead, she began to negotiate with and enable the most extreme elements of her party.

PLAN ‘FELL FLAT ON ITS FACE’

Her compromise proposal, now lauded in her TV ad, was to give Cruz and the tea party some of what they wanted by repealing a portion of the Affordable Care Act. Specifically, she sought to delay the implementation of a medical device tax meant to help fund health care subsidies.

Why did Collins target this particular provision? It’s hard to say, but it may have something to do with the fact that the pharmaceutical and medical device industry has given heavily to Collins’ re-election campaign. Four months before she proposed the repeal, their top lobbyists had even hosted a high-dollar fundraising luncheon on her behalf.

The bigger issue, though, was that she tried to give in to the tea party (or the “hostage takers” as King called them) at all, legitimizing their actions in shutting down the government and, if she were successful, ensuring that they would do so again the next time they had an unreasonable policy demand.

Luckily, a majority of senators rejected Collins’ proposals. As described in Politico at the time, her plan “fell flat on its face.” More reasonable members of Congress stood their ground and, in the end, they won. They got the government reopened without giving in to the demands of the extremists.

COUNTERPRODUCTIVE APPROACH

The whole episode is a rebuke to Collins’ half-a-loaf approach to moderation. On issues from the stimulus to the minimum wage to health care, she has tried to stake out a position in the middle based not on deeply held principles but on the political environment of the moment. As the Republican Party has shifted more to the right with the rise of the tea party, Collins has moved with it, and her definition of what is considered moderate has changed.

In cases like the government shutdown, when there are fundamental constitutional and principled reasons not to give in, this approach is especially counterproductive. It’s as if the biblical King Solomon of Israel, faced with two women each claiming to be the mother of the same infant, had been serious in suggesting that the baby be cut in half.

Collins is popular, well-financed and far ahead in the polls for re-election this year, but that doesn’t mean that this election season shouldn’t be an opportunity for the public and the press to evaluate her actions and approach to governance. That begins with a clear understanding of what she has been up to in Washington, with more sunlight and less lens flare.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @miketipping

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