Calmes: Sen. Susan Collins: A profile in cowardice

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, leaves following a vote as the Senate continues to grapple with end-of-year tasks and the future of President Joe Biden's social and environmental spending bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), at the Capitol on Dec. 15, has been reticent to truly stand up to former President Trump. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

It took her three days, but Sen. Susan Collins finally criticized the Republican National Committee for its shameful resolution last week calling the insurrectionists of Jan. 6, 2021, “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”

That’s “absurd,” she said Monday.

Them’s fighting words from the Maine Republican, who typically says she’s simply “very concerned” about one Trumpian outrage or another. It’s a routine that has justifiably turned Collins into a meme for feeble protest, and a figure of mockery on “Saturday Night Live.”

But why pick on Collins? Most Republicans remained silent about the RNC resolution, which, to Donald Trump’s delight, censured Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their anti-Trump but pro-democracy work on the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol as Congress certified Joe Biden’s victory.

Others, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, likewise waited days to react, until the controversy threatened to erode the party’s edge in the midterm elections. And many supported the RNC action, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, though he ran from an inquiring reporter rather than literally stand his ground.

So why pick on Collins? Because she promised more, and still purports to reflect a better politics. If the Collinses of the Republican Party won’t lead in trying to break the grip of a self-aggrandizing, lying authoritarian, a healthier democracy is a pipe dream.

For 25 years in the Senate, Collins has held herself out as a force for reason, moderation, bipartisanship and norms. Yet for five years she has mostly been a sheep in Trump’s flock, effectively enabling him and occasionally providing political cover for Republican men. She poses as the protege of Maine’s famed former Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. Yet she’s never gone to the Senate floor to deliver a “Declaration of Conscience,” as Smith did in 1950 — at some political price — against that earlier Republican demagogue, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

In one of the earliest challenges to McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunt, Smith warned against “a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty.” Sound familiar? While 1950 also was a midterm election year, Smith insisted, “I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny: Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

Compare that with Collins’ wobbly stand this week. She objected to the RNC resolution not on principle but on politics: Every moment Republicans spend debating the 2020 election and the rioters’ behavior, she said, “moves us further away from the goal of victory this fall.”

Worse, last week Collins wouldn’t rule out backing Trump’s election in 2024 when she was pressed twice in a nationally televised interview — this after Trump, at a rally the night before, told cheering Texans that, if elected, he might pardon those charged in the Capitol siege.

“But let me say this,” Collins assured ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, “I do not think the president should have made … that pledge to do pardons.”

That’s telling ol’ Trump, senator. By the way, he’s the former president.

Her profile in cowardice was especially jarring given Collins’ vote a year ago to convict Trump for inciting the Capitol mob. Had he been convicted after that second impeachment, he would have been barred from seeking office again.

Collins has seesawed before. When Trump ran for president in 2016, she announced in a Washington Post op-ed that she would vote against him based on his unapologetic cruelty and bigotry. “Regrettably,” she wrote, “his essential character appears to be fixed, and he seems incapable of change or growth.”

Yet four years later, Collins decided Trump could change, despite all his abuses in office. She justified her vote to acquit him after his first impeachment — for extorting a foreign leader to find dirt on Biden — by saying he had learned his lesson: “I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future.” He quickly proved her wrong.

That episode recalled her previous insistence that Brett M. Kavanaugh, as a Supreme Court justice, would respect court precedents and treat abortion rights as “settled law” — he’d told her so! She was either embarrassingly credulous or willfully misleading as she sought to justify her vote for him. He, too, is proving her wrong.

Unlike in 2016, before the 2020 presidential election Collins declined to say if she’d vote for Trump, telling a Maine newspaper, “I’m just not going to engage in political discussions at this point.”

What had changed? Trump had solidified control of their party like no president before him. In 2020, Collins was fighting for reelection herself, and was unwilling to alienate Maine’s MAGA voters.

It turns out that Collins is little different from most politicians: She shies from stands that might threaten her career or political opportunities. Associates say she’s rationalized her wimpy opportunism, confident that she represents her state and region well, and certainly better than some right-wing Republican or liberal Democrat who might replace her if she were voted out.

If Republicans win a majority in November, Collins is in line to be chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a career capstone that would let her bag billions more for Maine, maybe even get her name on some buildings. For that, however, she needs Republican senators’ support. And as Cheney illustrates, one risks retribution by prominently renouncing Trump.

Yet as Cheney has said: “History is watching. Our children are watching.” Collins (and other Republicans, too) should take heed, and think beyond the politics of the moment.

After all, we wouldn’t even remember her predecessor had Margaret Chase Smith not acted seven decades ago in the nation’s interest, rather than her own.

@jackiekcalmes

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.