Senator Susan Collins, Republican from Maine, has for years maintained an aura of independence, though whether she enjoys it isn’t so clear. Collins, along with Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski — from the country’s other northern extreme — are the only two serving Senate Republicans who have gone on record in support of Roe v. Wade, and as the only perceived swing votes among a majority of two, they wield frankly unimaginable power whenever a women’s rights issues come before the Senate. And so, in a time when few Republicans seem willing or able to even consider breaking rank, these normally quiet Senators often find themselves the focus of media attention and fervid public speculation. Collins, however, seems increasingly to resent it, and events over this last year — and especially this last week — have given us reason to doubt the convictions behind her statements. This raises the question: Does Collins champion women’s rights, or does she simply want to be seen as a champion of women’s rights?
The recent allegation of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee and inveterate douche Brett Kavanaugh has swung the spotlight onto Collins, who has once again found her nose buried deep in the offending bouquets of microphones and tape recorders. Let’s get it straight, though: This is no reason to feel bad for her. She wanted this job, and has served in the Senate for more than two decades. To steal an accusation often leveled against survivors of sexual assault, she asked for this.
It’s less clear what she wants, though, and even more inscrutable whether those convictions will inform her vote, should Kavanaugh’s confirmation process come to that.
First, Collins has consistently articulated support for Planned Parenthood and women’s health. She’s made a point of protecting the organization’s funding, and did so in her statement explaining her “no” vote on the ACA repeal last summer, a vote which along with dissent from fellow Republicans Murkowski and John McCain tanked the GOP’s misguided effort to eliminate the individual mandate.
But her statement sidesteps abortion and reveals at the very least the Senator’s reluctance to defend publicly a woman’s right to choose. Here’s what she said:
Also included in all of these plans is a misguided proposal that would block federal funds, including Medicaid reimbursements, from going to Planned Parenthood…. Let me be clear that this is not about abortion. Federal law already prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. This is about interfering with the ability of a woman to choose the health care provider who is right for her. This harmful provision should have no place in legislation that purports to be about restoring patient choices and freedom.
It’s no mystery why a Congressional Republican would see political value in dodging that question. Though she’s not up for re-election until 2020, Collins might share the concerns of many Republican incumbents about a primary challenge from the far right, which, she might calculate, presents more of a threat than whatever heat she catches from reproductive rights organizers. If so, she obviously wouldn’t want to alienate the GOP base needlessly. And though her seat doesn’t seem to be in much danger — Collins won decisively in the off-year 2014 election — Maine’s politics are famously weird: Angus King, the state’s junior Senator, is an Independent who caucuses with Democrats. The governor, Paul LePage, is a pro-life right-wing dingbat who supports a death penalty for drug dealers and endorses conversion therapy. Though LePage’s disapproval rating is currently the fourth-highest in Maine’s history, the right wing might see opportunity in further fracturing the state’s GOP voters to dethrone a pro-choice Collins. She might not want to take any extra risk if she can help it, especially as Republicans further entrench themselves in extremist politics.
There’s another explanation for her milquetoast mugwampism: Collins values not just her image of independence, but also her relationships with hill Republicans. She’s as much — or more of — an insider as she is a maverick, a paradoxical image she shared with her friend and mentor John McCain. She doesn’t want to make waves with her colleagues, and her fears of being outsided perhaps trump her fears of being ousted. It’s tough to craft sharp messaging that splits the difference, which explains in part why Collins resents the relentless black/white questions from the press.
But the time to act always comes.
Last spring, Collins not only voted to confirm SCOTUS nominee and former Young Fascist Club President Neil Gorsuch, she gave a speech on the Senate floor explaining why she supported him. She could have let the vote speak for itself, but again, Collins feels she has a line to walk, and people would demand an explanation for whatever position she took. Gorsuch obviously was a hard no on Roe, and Collins justified her choice by citing institutional norms:
Playing politics with judicial nominees is profoundly damaging to the Senate’s reputation and stature. It politicizes our judicial nomination process and threatens the independence of our courts, which are supposed to be above partisan politics.
Her vote was disappointing and her apologia bullshit — every nominee to the Court is political, and Roe ranks at the top of the wish list — but there you have it. You might forgive her betrayal if you take into account the longstanding practice of giving Presidents a freebie on their first SCOTUS nominee. Still, this shows at the very least that Collins’ position on Roe is conditional.
Enter Brett Kavanaugh.
When Donald Trump was considering his shortlist of three nominees to replace outgoing Justice and Roe swing vote Anthony Kennedy this summer, he reportedly met with Collins, among other Senators, to run Kavanaugh up the flagpole. Collins has said she wouldn’t vote for a nominee “hostile” to Roe and at the White House meeting asked Trump to broaden his shortlist, but after Trump named Kavanaugh the Senator met with the judge and walked out seemingly content with his position on Roe. “He said that he agreed with what [Chief Justice John] Roberts said at his nomination hearing, at which he said that it was settled law.” She assured reporters that Kavanaugh was “very strong” on that.
Collins later told ABC’s “This Week” in seemingly plain terms that “a candidate for this important position who would overturn Roe v. Wade would not be acceptable to me, because that would indicate an activist agenda that I don’t want to see a judge have.” She later told CNN that such a stated position “would mean to me their judicial philosophy did not include a respect for established decisions, established law, and I believe that that is the very important fundamental tenet of our judicial system, which, as Chief Justice Roberts says, helps to promote stability and even-handedness.”
Kavanaugh’s position, however, means nothing. “Settled law” can be overturned, and Kavanaugh won’t say whether he believes Roe was wrongly decided. Collins’ favorable comparisons to Roberts are also instructive, because there’s little doubt Roberts would take steps to erode Roe, if not overturn it. So it seems that as long as a SCOTUS nominee doesn’t display outright “hostility” to that decision, Collins would feel a vote to confirm would be justified.
However, we now have a nominee to the Court who isn’t simply hostile to Roe (he clearly is), but who has been credibly accused of sexual assault. Collins has so far kept her distance, advocating for the minimum of calling Kavanaugh’s accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Even Trump has taken this position.
If you have trouble reading between the lines, Collins cleared things up a bit in an interview with Maine radio. “Much to my surprise it now appears [Dr. Ford is] turning down all three options even though her attorney said earlier this week that she would come testify,” she said, adding, “I just don’t understand why the hearing shouldn’t go forth.”
In the same interview Collins criticized Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein for “withholding” Ford’s letter, even though Feinstein sat on it at Ford’s request. “It seems the way it was handled was unfair to both the judge and the professor because it casts this cloud of doubt on both of them,” Collins said. “The timing is certainly very unfortunate and I think unfair.”
Collins seems to have staked out a rueful position, that perhaps barring damning evidence or further allegations, she’ll vote to confirm Kavanaugh despite a woman’s attestation to attempted rape. Beyond that, Kavanaugh has also lied repeatedly about his political past, and has withheld from the Judiciary committee around 90% of documents related to his time serving as legal adviser to the Bush White House. He has also stated he doesn’t believe a sitting President can be indicted, despite his feverish attempts in the 1990s to take down Bill Clinton. (He also has a weird addiction to conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Vince Foster.) The Senate GOP has from the beginning made a concerted and choreographed effort to cover up as much of Kavanaugh’s past as possible, and their refusal to call for Trump to order an FBI investigation (the bureau did investigate Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against SCOTUS nominee Clarence Thomas in the early 1990s) is simply the most despicable in a series of despicable moves.
Considering the amorality the GOP has flaunted over the last few years, I hold out little hope Collins will do the right thing here and announce she will vote “no” without an FBI investigation. But maybe her wishy-washy statements are an effort to even out the waters until then. The next few days give Susan Collins the chance — and challenge — to define her legacy as a moral legislator and as a woman. As it stands, though, I put more faith in Jeff Flake.