I have always thought that Maine Senator Susan Collins reputation as a moderate voice of bi-partisan reasonableness was vastly overblown. That prejudice was confirmed again this week as Collins prostituted her credibility as a centrist to the gang bang Republicans, led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are waging against UN Ambassador Susan Rice.
According to Think Progress, the presumably independent-minded Collins repeated GOP talking points when she announced she'd have a hard time supporting Rice as the next Secretary of State if President Obama nominated her after comments she made on the Sunday talk shows two days after the Sept. 11 Benghazi terror attacks.
"It's important that the Secretary of State enjoy credibility around the world, with Congress and here in our country as well," said Collins, "and I am concerned that Susan Rice's credibility may have been damaged by the misinformation that was presented that day. That's one reason, as I said, that I wish she had just told the White House no, you should send a political person to be on those Sunday shows."
Collins had no misgivings about confirming Condoleeza Rice when she was nominated by President George W. Bush to be the nation's top diplomat, as Think Progress notes, despite the political role she played misleading the American people during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq.
According to Think Progress, Collins "hammered home various GOP talking points" about concerns that Rice may have acted overly political in providing an overview of the Obama administration's knowledge in the aftermath of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and said that damaged Rice's credibility to be the top State Department official.
Susan Collins is the political equivalent of the Great White Hope - that ever-elusive Republican who at least appears to be open towards working with Democrats on the other side. But appearances can be deceiving, and in our rush to anoint Collins another another Great Compromiser in the tradition of Webster, Clay and Calhoun we may fail to recognize the partisan wolf who resides in a moderate sheep's clothing.
I learned that the hard way two years ago when I attended an awards dinner in Boston honoring historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Maine Senator Susan M. Collins.
I'd gone to the dinner along with 1,400 of New England's movers and shakers to hear Goodwin, one of my heroes, reminisce about the joys of historical story-telling. But it was Collins who left the biggest impression with remarks that opened a window into the civil war currently raging for the soul of the Republican Party.
Collins has a reputation as an independent-minded moderate in a party that's become ever more extreme over the past 15 years, a distinction she will briefly share with the two other New England "moderates" departing the Senate in the next Congress -- Olympia Snowe of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
Collins said all the right things to this New England audience about what makes our region's politics unique: the retail style of living-room campaigning, the Town Meeting history of direct citizen involvement, the premium New Englanders place on no-nonsense Yankee problem-solving, and the hands-across-the-aisle tradition of bi-partisanship.
I did find it telling, though, that the only senators Collins mentioned by name were Lieberman, Dodd, and Kennedy: a turncoat, a lame duck and the dearly departed.
Given Collin's reputation "as a thoughtful, effective legislator who works across party lines to seek consensus on our nation's most pressing issues" (as the dinner's program intoned) it was not surprising that Collins would be introduced by our evening's host as the person who had followed in the footsteps of that other famous free spirit from Maine, Senator Margaret Chase Smith.
Smith, who detested Senator Joseph McCarthy from the start, is perhaps best known for the ringing "Declaration of Conscience" she delivered on the floor of the Senate on June 1, 1950, which earned her the epithet "Moscow Maggie" from McCarthy and his staff.
Her gauntlet was thrown less than four months after McCarthy's own infamous Wheeling, West Virginia speech, in which he announced he had in his possession a list of Russian agents in the employ of the US government.
Smith's Declaration attacked both the HUAC communist witch hunts then underway as well as laid out what Smith believed were the basic principles of "Americanism:" the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; and the right of independent thought.
Smith was a loyal Republican who said the Truman Administration had "lost the confidence of the American people" and should be replaced. But in words that now form an indelible part of American political history, Smith also said that to replace Truman "with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny - Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear."
In her speech, Collins showed she has a long way to go if she wants to wear Maggie Smith's mantle of patriotic, public-spirited statesmanship.
Collins complained about the toxic partisanship poisoning politics in the nation's capital, the loss of civility eating away at personal relationships, the extremism overtaking both major parties, and the vilification that awaits anyone (a.k.a. Collins herself) who tries to walk and work across party lines.
"I don't know who first described politics as the 'art of compromise,' but that maxim, to which I have always subscribed, seems woefully unfashionable today," said Collins. "Too few want to achieve real solutions; too many would rather draw sharp distinctions and score political points, even if that means neglecting the problems our country faces."
Noble sentiments, all. But then you realize that the person who wants to "draw sharp distinctions" and "score political points" while neglecting "the problems our country faces" is Collins herself.
Rather than leverage her moderate standing to call out the bad behavior she claims to loathe, as Maggie Smith once did, Collins would rather trade on her reputation for evenhandedness in order to advance the Republican Party's partisan prospects -- whether it was in the 2010 mid-term elections two years ago or to pile on against Ambassador Rice today.
The great tragedy in America today is that there are so few leaders -- in politics, the media or public life -- who have the credibility to stand above the fray and be heard across partisan lines.
Every game needs it umpires and politics is no exception. However much we might genuflect to the Will of the People, we still need those adults who stand ready to mediate our disputes and differences, whose commitment to honesty, impartiality and disinterestedness is so obvious and so deep that we trust them implicitly to call balls and strikes and tell us "and that's the way it is."
Susan Collins was among those few we looked up to for an unbiased appraisal of current conditions - or as unbiased as is humanly possible in these hyperpolarized times. And that is why it was so dispiriting to find her making such patently self-serving remarks.
The far right of the GOP obviously got to her. That's the most charitable explanation I can give for her obscene assertions that she's never seen such "divisiveness and excessive partisanship" in the Senate before - ever. Or that partisan rancor is why the American people are so angry with incumbents -- "particularly those who are in charge."
Or that the reason Republicans "overuse the filibuster" is that Republicans are routinely shut out in a Senate that "used to pride itself on being a bastion of free and open debate." Or that the way to promote greater harmony between parties is with "divided government and a more evenly split Senate."
That's right, to get along better what the county needs most is to elect more Tea Party Republicans who would see their own party spontaneously combust rather than see someone other than a far right extremist get elected. And those are South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint's words, not mine.
Collins devoted her speech two years ago to New England's political values and traditions. So, it's only fitting, I think, to point out that while New England may indeed be the home of the elitist East Coast Establishment, with its Blue Bloods and Boston Brahmins who care more for the pedigree of one's forbearers than the pedigree of one's ideas, the New England ruling classes were also able to develop, however grudgingly, a tradition of public-spirited public service that contrasts sharply with the kind of narrowly ideological leadership historically found in other regions of the country, most notably the hierarchal, self-serving plantation-owning South, whose feudal ways have always made it the natural antagonist of scrappy, inventive New England.
New England's WASP establishment did react with alarm, if not horror, to the invasion of Irish Catholics and others in the middle decades of the 19th century. And the nativist Know-Nothing Party that sprung up in reaction at that time (much like the Tea Party today) remains a black stain on the region's legacy.
But from that experience, and the simple need to get along, New England's conservative political elites gradually adopted the habits of a responsible leadership class, one rooted in the genuinely conservative values that promoted social peace and harmony by mediating differences between their community's competing ethnic groups and classes.
The fact that New England is now considered the most liberal region of the country shows how easily certain American understandings of liberalism and conservatism can overlap. And this is the origin of New England's liberal, nobblesse oblige brand of "Rockefeller" Republicanism that is now virtually extinct, whose leadership traits were unlike those habits developed by the ruling elites in other regions of the country, like the South, where the political establishment there found it expedient to preserve its privileges and power through divide and conquer politics that, rather than mediate differences, sought to provoke antagonisms within the population instead.
Much the same dynamic is playing out within a Republican Party today as it finds itself divided between those few moderates who see the connection between the responsibilities of national leadership and the need for cooperation and compromise -- understanding that the only sustainable society is an inclusive one -- and those rigid ideologues of the radical right who view compromise as a sign of betrayal to both cause and party, while they wall themselves up in their gated communities of body, mind and spirit.
Extremism is on the march everywhere, wrote Walter Lippmann during the calamities of the 1930s as civilization itself seemed to be coming apart because the liberal democracies had been tried and found wanting - both in their "capacity to govern successfully in this period of wars and upheaval but also in their ability to defend and maintain the political philosophy that underlies the liberal way of life."
Yet, who is ready to stand up for the liberal way of life now? In 1950, a Republican Senator from Maine stood on the floor of the US Senate to denounce her own kind for shamelessly exploiting "the Four Horsemen of Calumny - Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear."
Sixty years later, her successor stood before New England's elite and embarrassed her region, its governing traditions and herself when she shamelessly exploited impartiality and civility itself for a few more votes.