Susan Collins and the American legacy

Susan Collins and the American legacy
© Aaron Schwartz

If you’re looking for a place in America that personifies the best in all of us, look north and east to the State of Maine. Despite weather and terrain as unforgiving as they are breathtaking, Mainers are raised to work hard, try hard, and believe hard in each other. It’s baked into their DNA.

Their four-term U.S. senator, Republican Susan Collins, a living embodiment of these core values, may soon be remembered for none of them. After months of attacks from tens of millions of dollars in TV and digital ads, this American icon may lose more than a political race. She may lose a legacy wrought in precisely the most hazardous place in the public arena one can be these days: the center lane.

For seven years running, Collins has been ranked the most bipartisan senator in Washington. In the words of the policy director for the Lugar Center: “No other Senator comes close to Senator Collins in the frequency and consistency with which she has worked with the other party on legislation. She is the gold standard for bipartisanship in the U.S Congress.”


Fiercely independent and accountable, Collins hails from Caribou, Maine, (population 8,189) where the only thing more popular than the caribous themselves is a National Weather Service station located on the outskirts of town.

Once rated one of the nation’s most popular senators, Collins has become one of the least liked, pilloried for her Republican roots in the Age of Trump, and for her vote to confirm Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Supreme Court sees new requests for religious COVID-19 carve-outs For Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court upholds religious liberty MORE to the highest court in the land.

The trouble here is the inconvenience of truth, or what legendary broadcaster Paul Harvey referred to as “the rest of the story.”

Yes, it is true that over 90 percent of Susan Collins’s votes this past year have shown unity with the president on legislation ranging from trade and taxes to criminal justice reform… issues a majority of Americans not only understand but generally support.

The rest of the story? Every other senator either supports or opposes the president nearly all the time, in a Senate that has moved from collegiality and compromise to partisan gridlock.


Regarding Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Collins did vote to confirm him (followed immediately by Democrat and fellow centrist Joe Manchin from West Virginia).

The rest of the story? Collins did so after conducting lengthy interviews with supporters and detractors, lawyers and jurists, and Kavanaugh himself. No one else did the homework for her; she did her own.

That’s why Collins’s hour-long address on the Senate floor explaining her vote remains must-see viewing for anyone on any side of any issue who pretends to have a shred of sincerity — and the vulnerability that requires.

She reminded us that day that there’s a fine line that distinguishes morality from manipulation: “We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy,” she said.

Now she finds herself in the middle of another Supreme Court nomination scrum, where the credentials and humanity of Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettGraham reports 'record-breaking' 9M haul during 2020 campaign The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Supreme Court sees new requests for religious COVID-19 carve-outs MORE are being flailed by a pack of political adolescents.

Collins’s political opponent this year is a fill-in-the-blank Democrat, Sara Gideon, whose campaign suggests she’ll be more partisan, more intransigent, and less independent than Collins — or any of Maine’s legendary Senate greats (Margaret Chase Smith, Olympia Snowe, Bill Cohen, Bill Hathaway, and now Angus KingAngus KingHillicon Valley: Government used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 | Defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal, includes White House cyber czar position | Officials warn hackers are targeting vaccine supply chain Defense policy bill would create new cyber czar position Leadership changes at top cyber agency raise national security concerns MORE.)

As much as Gideon swamps Maine airwaves with a torrent of negative ads funded mostly by outsiders, she will never outwork Maine’s “iron lady” (Collins hasn’t missed a single vote in her career — over 7,000 so far, and counting).

All of this brings us to the word elected officials consummately desire yet fully fret: “legacy.”

Stanford University studied two kinds of political legacy: hard (concrete achievements like FDR’s “New Deal”) and soft (powerful imagery, like Reagan’s “Morning in America”). After a career of exemplary moderation and consequential accomplishment, Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal Lawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Biden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him MORE can rightfully claim both.

Yet like so many before, and to come, her legacy may only be recalled for the here and now, the last campaign.

If that happens, America’s legacy for honoring character will also take a hit, and deservedly so.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media strategist and columnist. He is a partner at Ballard Partners in Washington D.C. He is also the first Edward R. Murrow Senior Fellow at Tufts University's Fletcher School. Follow him on Twitter @adamgoodman3