The difficulty of being Susan Collins — alone in the middle

Sen. Susan Collins is considered a moderate Republican.  That can make life difficult.

First, the “moderate” part.  She comes from a Maine Republican tradition that, while supporting the business community, also has focused on good but limited government.  Often in the past, Maine Republicans were associated with environmental protection.

A moderate Republican has become a rarity.  Since 1995, when the party in Congress adopted strict discipline and conservatives came to dominate, any Republican who votes independently of the party line may find herself under attack.

Jane Mayer’s recent book, Dark Money, relates how billionaire party backers were given the choice between funding a diverse GOP congressional delegation or only hard-right Republicans.  They followed the trend and turned right.

As a result, Collins may find herself subjected to scorching criticism and called a RINO, a Republican in name only.  Her party loyalty is challenged because of her unwillingness to stop thinking for herself and simply vote in line with party leaders.

And there may be a price to pay.  When Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell hands out good committee assignments and other political plums, Collins runs the risk of being at the end of the line.

Last week, she was the only Republican to vote against President Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.  A writer once opined that the environment is to Maine as oil is to Texas, so McConnell had to look the other way.  Similarly, two coal- and gas-state Democrats voted for the nominee.

Collins did not support candidate Trump, has opposed a couple of his cabinet nominees and, in 1999, voted against convicting Bill Clinton after he was impeached.  But some Democrats believe Collins is not moderate enough.

These critics believe she should be more independent of her party and vote more in line with the Democrats, simply because she sometimes agrees with them.  If she fails to align more closely with them, they charge her with not truly being a moderate.

A moderate means you are in the middle, but the middle is proving to be a lonely place, open to heated attacks from either side.

What her critics overlook is the second part of her political label – Republican.  Susan Collins and her politically active family were Republicans long before the birth of some of those who now attack her supposed lack of orthodoxy, labeling her a RINO.

Collins says being a Republican is part of her identity.  The American tradition has been to allow people to define themselves and that is certainly the case for political affiliation.  The first thing Collins or anybody else needs to do is to be true to themselves.

She may be trying to help her party survive a narrow and exclusionary self-definition that could result in its ending up as a permanent minority as the U.S. population becomes more urban and diverse.  When Republicans attack or exclude her, they may be narrowing their window to the future.

Democrats need to avoid falling into the same camp as the GOP tea party conservatives by insisting on strict adherence to a single set of policies.  Their tradition has been to be open to diversity.  Still, they cannot reasonably expect a Republican like Collins to align with them.

Instead, they should value her attempts at moderation and see if it is possible to create and expand the bipartisan middle ground that is essential to sound public policy and a stable political system.  That requires making some concessions.

This column does not endorse politicians, and this is not an endorsement of Collins.  It is meant to highlight the real choice voters face when they vote for her or other candidates for the U.S. Senate or House.

That choice can mean a candidate’s party matters more than his or her positions on the issues.  The most important vote a member of Congress makes is to select the party running the show and, for her, it is the GOP.  Collins is not a deep conservative, but she enables a party dominated by deep conservatives.

Instead of supporting candidates on policy positions, maybe we ought to support them on their commitment to preserving our system against the demands of rigid or even dangerous ideology.

Legitimately, she might say that she provides a path to compromise.  Sticking with a party that may scorn her as a moderate is challenging, and it’s what makes Collins’ political existence difficult.

The problem for a thoughtful legislator like Collins is finding the balance between strict party loyalty and good government.  It’s also a problem for voters.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.