Sen. Susan Collins is about to reach the point she’s been anticipating, and dreading, for many months. As the Articles of Impeachment against President Donald Trump finally move forward, Collins — the last Republican senator originally elected as a moderate — is facing a true Hobson’s choice.

She famously declared, in a Washington Post op-ed in August 2016, that she would not be voting for Trump — a rare step for a respected four-term senator to make. She zeroed in on exactly what makes Trump so reprehensible for anyone who still believes there can be morality in politics — his deliberate, calculated, persistent attacks on the weak and defenseless.

As she eloquently put it, Trump “opts to mock the vulnerable and inflame prejudices by attacking ethnic and religious minorities.” She cited three incidents from his campaign, when he ridiculed a reporter with disabilities, derided a federal judge hearing the Trump University case who was born in Mexico, and attacked the parents of an Army captain killed in Iraq because they are Muslim.

Collins cut through the denial and excuse-making that most Republican officeholders were indulging in, and called a spade a spade — an important moment for a veteran Maine politician known far more for caution than boldness.

Then, the unthinkable occurred: Trump won, and it’s been all downhill for Collins since then. She voted for both Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, approved the latest gigantic tax cut for the 1% and big corporations, and put the Affordable Care Act in jeopardy by doing so.

These positions run from moderately to wildly unpopular with Maine voters, which puts her re-election to a record fifth term in doubt, though much depends on who Maine Democrats nominate to run against her.

Up to now, Susan Collins has led a charmed life in politics. The debacle of her first bid for statewide office — for governor, in 1994, when she received the lowest percentage by a Republican nominee in more than a century — turned almost miraculously into victory in the 1996 Senate race.

In the primary, her two male opponents attacked each other, canceling out their candidacies, and in November she drew Joe Brennan, long past his prime with Maine voters, and won narrowly.

In office, Collins gained the same rapport with Maine voters across the ideological spectrum that her Republican predecessors, Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe, pioneered. Some Democrats were more inclined to vote for Collins than their own nominee, and Collins was re-elected three times, almost without breaking a sweat.

But polarization drives out moderation, and Collins is now in the ultimate no-win situation. If she votes to acquit, amid overwhelming evidence Trump sought political assistance from Ukraine for his re-election campaign, Democrats who’ve favored her for years may abandon her.

After all, even Richard Nixon only tried to use the CIA and the FBI against political enemies. Trump doesn’t trust American spies and investigators, and had to shake down foreign governments.

If, conversely, Collins votes to convict, she will bring down the wrath not only of Trump, but of a Republican political establishment that’s now wrapped itself so tightly around him there’s no tolerance for dissent. And Maine Republican voters — many of them radicalized by two terms of Paul LePage as governor — will be outraged.

Caught between Scylla and Charybdis, Collins could lose.

Retirement must have looked inviting; it was the choice made by some two dozen House Republicans. After 24 years in the Senate, it’s hard to envision what Collins might accomplish in another term, either under a re-elected Trump or a Democrat elected because of the voters’ conclusion that Trump represents a mortal threat to democracy.

What may be the key to her decision to run is exactly because it’s a fifth term. Only two senators from Maine, both Republicans, have served four full terms: the nearly forgotten Frederick Hale (1916-41), and the fiercely independent Margaret Chase Smith (1949-73), who is clearly Collins’s model, from dressing in red to never missing a floor vote.

Hale retired, but Smith lost her bid for a fifth term to Democratic Congressman Bill Hathaway, in an election that turned largely on Smith’s strident support for escalating the war in Vietnam at a time when most Mainers wanted to pull out. Bill Cohen won Hathaway’s 2nd District seat, also in 1972, by campaigning against the war.

Such are the vicissitudes of war, and politics. If Collins does lose, it will be because she’s on the wrong side of a divide against which moderation cannot prevail.

Whatever happens, it’s virtually certain that Collins won’t be announcing her choice for president, ever again.

 

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at: [email protected]


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