As voters consider whether to re-elect her, Sen. Susan Collins came clean about her refusal to tell them what she thinks about their biggest decision in November. She confessed that she wouldn’t say if she supports Donald Trump for re-election because the politics were just too hard for her.
“In parts of the state President Trump is very popular, in parts of the state he’s very unpopular” and, as for her, she’s having “a difficult race” this year, Collins told CNN.
This was quite a contrast to four years ago, when Collins boldly stated she would not vote for Trump, writing in the Washington Post, “My conclusion about Mr. Trump’s unsuitability for office is based on his disregard for the precept of treating others with respect, an idea that should transcend politics.”
Has Trump become more respectful? No. And although Collins recently contended she was willing to give her opinion in 2016 because she “was not up for re-election,” in her previous campaigns during a presidential year, Collins said what she thought of the nominees.
More broadly, Collins’ confession about Trump raised questions about her willingness to be direct and open and to follow through on what she believes.
In 2016, Collins looked independent and brave for speaking against Trump. But now, rather than emulating the courageous Margaret Chase Smith who stood up to Joseph McCarthy, Collins confessed to political posturing.
This disconnection from the Maine paradigm of political bravery is the focus of an ad from The Lincoln Project. The group of former longtime Republicans views Collins as part of a “network of enablers” for Trump. The ad references Collins saying after she voted to acquit Trump that he learned “a pretty big lesson,” a comment that sounds willfully naive at best and politically craven at worst.
After long praising Smith and cultivating a sense that she was independent, Collins is being judged against that standard. Tom Nichols, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, recently told interviewer Josh Marshall that Collins “should have known better” but capitulated to Trump and therefore deserved defeat.
In past elections, Collins’ reputation was buttressed by endorsements from a series of groups focused on Social Security and Medicare, labor, gun safety, choice, LGBTQ rights and environmental issues that have now gone to Democrat Sara Gideon. They, too, have lost confidence in Collins.
Collins’ campaign has ignored the broader political context and Collins’ controversial votes to support the Trump tax bill and put Brett Kavanaugh and other far-right judges on the federal bench.
Instead, the Collins campaign engages in aggressive credit claiming, much about the Paycheck Protection Program. There was always going to be a bill for businesses to counteract some of the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The PPP is both helpful and flawed. Many small businesses found it hard to access funds. Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to Chinese firms, including two owned by “a state-owned conglomerate that the Department of Defense classified this year as a Chinese military company.”
Gideon criticized the PPP for helping big corporations too much versus small businesses. Because Gideon’s husband’s employer got a PPP loan, the Collins campaign attacked her. But it’s sexist to go after a woman candidate for her husband’s action (let alone acts of her husband’s employer) and it’s anti-democratic to suggest that citizens can’t raise questions about how a program operates and who it helps.
Gideon has also talked about her record on opioid legislation, health care and other policies. Collins’ campaign website doesn’t even have a section on her policy stances although one can learn the name of her dog.
In this time of dual health and economic crises, made worse by a president who responded poorly and is questioning the legitimacy of the election, it also important that voters consider what candidates believe about who will sit in the Oval Office in 2021 and if candidates are willing to tell voters what they think.
Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.