The Shrinking Moderate Class
Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins is in trouble.
Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins is in trouble. Over the course of her four-term tenure, Collins’ careful deliberation has built the senator a longstanding reputation as a “True Moderate” with a hand in multiple bipartisan efforts from the last decade from the Gang of 14’s successful compromise to the 2010 repeal of the infamous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy. Collins is also known as a swing vote in controversial decisions; she broke party lines through her vote to acquit in the Clinton Impeachment trial and stood with other republicans in her vote to confirm Brett Kavenaugh; both times backing her choices with extensive research and explanations. She supports abortion rights and LGBT issues, and she has broken with her party on topics ranging from the environment to taxes to the Affordable Care Act. Historically, this has served her well as Collins enjoyed a 53 percent approval rating in late 2018—recovering from the drop that followed the Kavanaugh hearings—and has consistently won her re-elections by wide margins. Both the Republicans and Democrats of Maine were pleased with a representative who made an art of straddling the line and taking an admirably deliberative approach to complex situations like the Clinton trial, during which the Washington Post described Collins as "one of the few senators who genuinely has not made up her mind” and pays attention to the proceedings “while other senators are looking at the ceiling [or] at each other.”
By 2019, however, Collins’ brand as an independent appears to have gone out of style. The slow, careful approach to decision making that once brought her praise is now being decried as inaction as she deliberates voting for witnesses in the Trump impeachment trial, and as of December 2019 she faces a 52 percent disapproval rating, making a representative who was last re-elected with 70 percent of the vote into the U.S.’ least popular senator. Senator Lisa Murkowski, another congresswoman who tends toward compromise and moderacy, is also among the least popular. Collins’ critics argue that this plunge in popularity is due to her lack of decisiveness and inability to hold true to her reputation as an independent, but this is particular claim is plainly untrue. While Collins isn’t necessarily correct about each choice, she’s as consistent in her methods as she is a fixture in Maine, treating her controversial decisions in the Kavanaugh and, now, Trump cases with the same trademark deliberation that was once applauded. She has also bucked Trump and her party multiple times in the last four years: Her staunch opposition to his National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border of the United States being just one example. Rather, the growing dissatisfaction regarding Collins can be attributed to the increasingly thin tightrope she’s walking between pleasing Republicans so as not to be contested for the nomination and appealing to the broader democratic electorate in Maine. Trump supporters don’t care for her lack of patriotism: “She stabbed the Republican Party in the back,” growled a retired Army major wearing a “proud American” T-shirt. “She hasn’t really supported our president.” Meanwhile, Democrats object to her tendency to overthink before taking a side. When asked if she believed Elizabeth Jean Carroll’s sexual assault accusations against Trump, for example, she answered: “I have no information on it, beyond what she says and beyond what he says. It’s an impossible allegation to evaluate”—not the response most were seeking. As the New York Times puts it, Collin’s propensity for caution “may be losing its allure…in an era when voters demand brazenness” and thus many partisan groups cannot see Collins’ calls for question and compromise as anything but betrayal.
Collins is hardly the only congress member affected by growing partisanship. Lawrentians will recall that our own school speaker Senator Jeff Flake cited the hyper partisan atmosphere and lack of agreeableness among colleagues when he retired from politics. Another Republican who won’t be seeking re-election is Senator Lamar Alexander, who Politico describes as “the rare senator who is close to both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer” and thus a key negotiator, much like Collins.
While Democrats might cheer at the notion of a Republican incumbent stepping down, it is worth noting that Republicans are still slated to retain the seat and likely with a senator who is far less willing to compromise. Similarly, widely admired Senator Olympia Snowe, another moderate republican famous for her bipartisan efforts, bowed out of seeking what would have been her fourth re-election in 2014 due to the “dysfunction and political polarization in the institution.” In an Op-Ed for the Washington Post explaining her decision, she wrote, “in a politically diverse nation, only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good. This is not happening today and frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future”.
Growing hyperpolarization in the U.S. has lead to a partisan culture that is increasingly intolerant of moderate views. As Collins noted the endorsement of a conservative Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who also faced a highly contested re-election: “There are so few members left in the center.” Collins is the face of moderacy in the Senate—the possibility of her removal and the impending loss of several other representatives who have similarly made moderacy their brand does not bode well for the future productivity of an already snail-slow congress. We often complain about an inefficient legislative body, but Collins’ case illustrates how its inability to agree on anything often comes from voters’ inability to elect representatives who are willing to reach across the aisle. Politicians aren’t a bunch of randoms, after all, they’re the people chosen by the people, and thus their competence (or lack thereof) is the result of our choices. We need to be cautious in our selections: even if it doesn’t always support our ideology, a politician’s willingness to research and deliberate before defaulting to red or blue in the face of external pressure demonstrates exactly what congressional representatives ought to be—a collection of agents that focus on the public good, not a numbers game that predetermines which of two sides will win. As future voters—and as members of communities that make decisions in general—we ought to beware the loss of voices that advocate for collaboration and compromise.