Collins a profile in courage

Posted Feb. 17, 2009, at 5:49 p.m.

Sen. Susan Collins has made national news by engineering a compromise on President Obama’s stimulus bill. Gridlock was prevented. Democrats got a bill but the Republicans got spending cuts of more than $120 billion.

On top of that, by providing a safe place for Arlen Specter to land, Collins probably saved his re-election campaign, thus closing off the easiest route for the Democrats to get to 60 Senate seats in 2010. In other words, Collins might have saved the Republicans in the Senate from becoming as irrelevant as Republicans in the House. No wonder a lot of Republicans are really mad at her.

In 1964, before I was able to vote, Stan Tupper was re-elected to Congress from Maine. He was the only Maine Republican to win any office of consequence that year. I was young and naive so my first thought was that Maine Republicans would study Tupper to see how to win. In reality, the Republicans were mad at Tupper for not supporting Goldwater and made it clear to Stan that he had no future in the Republican Party. He was so discouraged that all LBJ had to do was offer Stan the ambassadorship to represent the United States at the Canadian World Exhibition and Stan was gone from Congress. A Democrat soon took his place.

Since 1964, I’ve spent some time observing politics and I am still amazed at party activists who expect their elected representatives to ignore the wishes of their constituents. Yes, John Kennedy wrote a book celebrating senators who risked their political careers by overruling the view of their constituents on issues such as war or the impeachment of a president. But what is the right relationship between a representative and his or her constituents on less clear-cut or transcendent issues? Even if a representative has no intention of ever running again, isn’t she elected to represent the voters?

The truth is, a senator or representative to Congress has a lot of freedom on most issues. The folks back home do not follow every vote and are usually willing to give their elected representatives the benefit of the doubt. However, there are times when the voters are watching very closely, such a time was last week’s vote on the stimulus bill.

The people of Maine had just overwhelmingly voted for President Obama. Maine had never bought into “the answer to everything is a tax cut” ideology of the last decade. In the face of this, Collins just won a truly impressive victory by overwhelmingly defeating a popular Democratic congressman. Collins won that race by convincing her fellow Mainers that she was the candidate who put independence first.

Collins could not oppose the stimulus bill just because her fellow Republicans had decided to draw a line in the sand, not and be true to the contract she had just entered into with Maine voters.

Instead, Collins did what every good elected representative tries to do. She found the center of gravity between the people who elected her and her own political views.

Personally, I worry about the money for the states cut out by her compromise. I’m afraid it might lead to a lot of people losing their jobs at a time when it will be hard for the economy to absorb them. But what Collins did is a lot more important than what her bill might not do. She responded to President Obama’s open hand by reaching back across the aisle. That’s something to give Americans real hope in this perilous time. It’s something that should make every Mainer proud.

Phil Merrill lives in Appleton and has been involved in Maine politics since being elected to the Maine Senate in 1974.

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