I hereby nominate Sen. Susan Collins as an honorary member of The Flying Wallendas.

The Wallendas are known worldwide as that daring, some might say crazy, family who make their living walking tightropes over places where no rational person would go. Their survival depends solely on their sense of balance – too far to the right or left and … let’s just say it doesn’t end well. 

Collins performed a similar, albeit political, daredevil act Monday when she finally issued a statement reacting to President Trump’s weekend racist attack on four freshmen members of Congress. They’re all Democrats, all progressive and all women of color who, according to the highest elected official in the land, should either keep their mouths shut or “go back” to the countries from which they came.

The tweet was stunning even by Trumpian standards – a clear signal that, to Trump, the road to re-election is a race war. It begged for rebuke from all people of conscience.

So what did Collins do? She teetered and tottered through a statement that took more than 24 hours to put out. And in the process, she stumbled badly.

Here’s what she said:

“I disagree strongly with many of the views and comments of some of the far-left members of the House Democratic Caucus – especially when it comes to their views on socialism, their anti-Semitic rhetoric, and their negative comments about law enforcement – but the president’s tweet that some members of Congress should go back to the ‘places from which they came’ was way over the line, and he should take that down.”

That’s 70 words in total. But note that the first 40 aren’t about Trump at all – before she could even get to the matter at hand, Collins first felt compelled to pummel the president’s targets herself.

Question: When condemning a racist attack against anyone, let alone four fellow members of Congress, where in the rules of political etiquette does it say you first double down on the attacker’s targets?

As for the remaining 30 words, Collins’s declaration is noteworthy not for what she said but for what she didn’t.

She said Trump was “way over the line.” And exactly what line might that be?

She didn’t say. Like all but a handful of her fellow Republicans, Collins couldn’t bring herself to call it what it so clearly is – the line that has divided this country since our very inception.

Racism, Senator. It’s called racism. Why is that word so hard to utter?

As for remedial action, Collins goes on to feebly suggest that Trump “take that down.”

That’s it? Hit the delete button and we’re all good? No call for contrition, no acknowledgement that Trump, who occupies the most powerful office in the world, once again owes the entire nation an apology?

There was a time when Collins was regarded as skilled at this kind of thing. Ever the righteous “moderate,” she built her brand on what was once the vast middle of our political spectrum.

At times, she’d lean a little left (see: freedom of choice, Affordable Care Act) and draw cheers from liberals who lauded her courage in standing apart from her party.

At other times she sway to the right (see: tax cuts, Brett Kavanaugh), reassuring her conservative friends that, wink-wink, she’s still one of them.

But in this era of Trump, who plays the race card like a joker he keeps up his sleeve, we’re all now forced to pick a side. Line up behind a demagogue or stand up against him, it’s your choice.

The middle, long Collins’s comfort zone, has shrunk to a tightrope.

Thus, some will argue, it’s not Collins who has changed. Rather, they’ll say, the world around her that has turned her – the only remaining Republican from New England in Congress – into an endangered political species.

Not so fast.

Remember back in August of 2016, when all the “smart” money had Trump losing the presidential election in a landslide and Collins penned a widely circulated op-ed for The Washington Post declaring she would not vote for him?

“Donald Trump does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country,” she wrote at the time.

Compare that with her appearance on “PBS NewsHour” last January, when host Judy Woodruff pressed Collins on whether she’ll endorse Trump in 2020.

“I don’t know,” Collins demurred. “I’m going to have to see what happens between now and then and look at what his record is.”

Tell us, Senator, what has Trump done over the past two and a half years to swing you from “no way” to “I don’t know”? How has he improved on what you rightfully condemned, in that op-ed almost three years ago, as his “complete disregard for common decency?”

He hasn’t changed one iota. And if the bile that flowed from his Twitter account on Sunday morning is any indication, he’s about to get a whole lot worse.

The obvious reality here is that Collins, like so many of her Republican colleagues, is scared to death of Trump. To come out and use the “r” word in her criticism of his tweet would be to put herself in his crosshairs – a fate she can ill afford among those 2nd District Mainers who voted for Trump in 2016.

So, before she said anything even remotely critical of the man who hijacked her party, Collins first threw those supporters a bone: Prior to chastising the president, allow me to first take issue with those four far-left women in the House who got him so upset in the first place!

That’s pandering, pure and simple. What’s worse, it renders Collins complicit in normalizing behavior that once would have evoked universal – and unequivocal – condemnation from all corners of Capitol Hill.

We can only imagine how much time and effort went into crafting Collins’ 70 words on what has become an existential crisis for this country.

Did she and her staff stay up late deciding that before she goes after Trump – gently, mind you – she must first enumerate all the problems she has with four of her fellow Americans?

Or did Collins simply wait for her marching orders from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his tight-lipped minions: Be sure to go after “The Squad” first and, above all, no use of the “r” word, capiche?

Either way, as she prepares to fight like never before for her own political survival, Collins is no longer steady as she goes.

Like never before, she’s tiptoeing without a safety net.

 


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