As I filled out my absentee ballot for the Maine primary, I was overcome with a familiar sense of dejection.
I was reminded of the way I felt years ago, albeit in a very different situation. While writing a story about a solar system model built by volunteers in Maine’s northernmost county, Aroostook — the place where our senator, Susan Collins, grew up — I visited each installation. The impressive sun was in a building at the University of Maine, Presque Isle. Five miles south of that was a stunning Jupiter, built by local high school students. A mysterious Saturn, complete with rings, stood in a grassy lea in Westfield. I was in awe.
But when I got to Pluto, I just felt glum. The scale model — not much bigger than a Ping-Pong ball, affixed to the wall of the Houlton Information Center — was a little underwhelming.
When I voted a few days ago, so were my options.
This was not because of my lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic speaker of the House, Sara Gideon, the favorite to take on Senator Collins this November. (I participated in a fund-raising event for Ms. Gideon this spring.)
But it’s hard not to think of Susan Collins, of Aroostook County, without an accompanying sense of loss. In a poll released in January, 52 percent of registered voters in Maine said they disapproved of her. Fewer than half (42 percent) approved. She was the least popular senator in the country, even more loathed than Mitch McConnell. Which is saying something.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2015, her statewide approval rating was 78 percent — the highest of any Republican senator. That made her the nation’s second-most-popular senator among constituents; the first was Bernie Sanders.
What accounts for the change? In large measure, it’s her failure to stand up to Donald Trump, a man whom she described in 2016 as “unworthy of being our President.” This was “based on his disregard for the precept of treating others with respect,” she wrote, “an idea that should transcend politics. Instead, he opts to mock the vulnerable and inflame prejudices by attacking ethnic and religious minorities.”
And yet, at so many moments of truth over the past four years, Senator Collins has voted to enable the man whom she described as incapable of change or growth. His actions leave her concerned. And dismayed. And disappointed.
Then she votes to empower him.
In 2017, Trump ended health care subsidies to low- and middle-class Americans under the Affordable Care Act. Senator Collins’s reaction? She was “very disappointed in the president’s actions.”
She told her constituents not to worry. Her sense, post-impeachment, was that Mr. Trump has learned “a pretty big lesson.”
On what possible planet has Mr. Trump learned his lesson?
Ms. Collins later said that her comment “may not be correct” and that his behavior is — oh no, what’s this? — “problematic.” Oh well.
So ubiquitous is Ms. Collins’s disappointment that there’s now a partisan mash-up video on YouTube of her expressing, over and over again, how upset and sad she is. On “Saturday Night Live,” Cecily Strong as the senator said that Trump makes her “want to shake my head vigorously and wag my finger once, perhaps twice!”
All of these disappointments were enough to sour Mainers on their once-popular senator. But nothing turned opinion as profoundly as her 45-minute speech on the Senate floor in 2018, leading up to her vote on Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. In that speech she acknowledged the allegations against him were “sincere, painful and compelling.”
But that didn’t prevent her from bitterly scolding anyone who had been moved by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, accusing us of being manipulated by “dark money” and “special interest groups.”
She voted for Justice Kavanaugh in part because she took him at his word that abortion rights were a settled precedent. Then, last week, Justice Kavanaugh voted with the conservative minority on the court to uphold a Louisiana law that would have severely restricted a woman’s right to abortion in that state. In a statement, Senator Collins said that critics who saw this vote as a complete repudiation of her assessment of Kavanaugh were “reading too much into this specific decision.”
Right. Because otherwise, you might conclude that once again our senator had been, you know, bamboozled.
Of course it may be that progressive and moderate Mainers have been expecting too much of Senator Collins all along; she is a Republican, after all, and that she should vote with her party should, perhaps, surprise no one. Still, Maine’s politicians have a tradition of fierceness and independence, from Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain to James G. Blaine, from Olympia Snowe to William Cohen (all four of them Republicans, in fact). On June 1, Mainers observed the 70th anniversary of Margaret Chase Smith’s “Statement of Conscience” speech, in which she unequivocally denounced Joseph McCarthy.
For the longest time Senator Collins was clearly in that tradition; in 2014, this light-blue state re-elected her with 68 percent of the vote.
But it may be that the independence for which Ms. Collins was once celebrated is itself a thing of the past. “We’re in the era of Mitch McConnell, and he’s not interested in compromise,” Susan Young, the editorial page editor of The Bangor Daily News has explained. “We’re criticizing her for not doing something that just isn’t happening in the Senate anymore.”
But that doesn’t mean that Mainers aren’t still yearning for it. Mainers expected Senator Collins to stand up to Mr. Trump, to show courage and conscience. Instead she enabled him, leaving this country divided and adrift.
How do we feel? Disappointed.
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