Maine's Susan Collins: Duty, bipartisan outlook drove decision to stay in Senate

The Republican senator is not running for governor because of the enormity of the issues facing the US and her role as a bridge builder, she told the Monitor in an exclusive interview.

Joel Page/Reuters
Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine speaks at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Rockport, Maine, where she announced she intends to keep her Senate seat – and not run for governor of her home state.

Known in the Senate for doing her homework on issues, Republican Susan Collins of Maine thoroughly weighed the pros and cons of running for governor before she finally announced on Friday that she was staying put as the state’s senior senator in Washington. 

It was a decision that caused a ballroom full of Mainers – Republicans and Democrats – to give her a standing ovation, including a sharp whistle of approval. For many, Senator Collins is a voice of reason and civility in today’s highly charged political atmosphere. Indeed, she’s been ranked the most bipartisan member of the Senate four-years running.

But a sense of duty also played a huge role in her decision, she told the Monitor in an exclusive interview at the seaside resort where she made her announcement. Though she feels the pull of home every day, and is the target of criticism and pressure from the White House and Maine’s current Republican governor, the issues before the nation are just too great, and her role as a bridge builder is just too important for her to leave, she says.

“I can't just walk away.... It's too consequential for our country,” says the senator, first elected in 1996. “I know that my voice and my vote matter and that I can help shape the outcome of events that I care deeply about.”

Certainly, Americans saw that when she was one of three Republicans to vote against the GOP effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, killing the bill in a late-night, cliffhanger vote in July. She objected to the effort because it never involved a real bipartisan process, and because it would have meant huge Medicaid cuts for Maine, among other reasons. 

'I am a congenital optimist'

Looking across her state and the world, Collins sees enormous challenges in families prostrated by stagnant wages, a nuclear North Korea, Russian interference with US elections, and hyper-partisanship. But as she told a sold-out breakfast put on by the local chamber of commerce here, “I am a congenital optimist.” Indeed, she’s hopeful on issues from tax reform to America’s future generation of public servants. 

While her friend and colleague Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee warns publicly that only a few key players in the Trump administration separate the country from “chaos,” and questions the president’s “stability” and “competence,” Collins does not see things quite so darkly.

President Trump is inexperienced in foreign policy, defense, and government, and underestimates the power of his words, she says in the interview. He does not “fully appreciate” that every single word he utters matters and is scrutinized by enemies and allies. “I think that’s the underlying problem.”

When asked whether she thought the president is endangering the country with his reckless utterances, as Senator Corker seems to charge, she answered that “people are beginning to understand that when the president says something that is inflammatory, that he often changes his language later or it's dialed back.” They are getting used to his style, she says. As a result, “the alarm level has diminished.”

She’s still critical of Mr. Trump, whom she did not vote for, if diplomatically so, calling him out during her morning address for his executive actions, particularly his decision this week that the government would stop paying certain subsidies related to the Affordable Care Act. 

Every day seems to produce a crisis, she says, joking: “Couldn’t we just have one day off?” To relieve stress, she kayaks on Cold Stream Pond, about 40 miles from her home in Bangor. Kayaking is a cell-free zone. Crystal-clear water, without a ripple on the lake – that’s what “renews my spirit,” she says.

Still, she says, her work is "exciting," because she feels she is making a difference. 

Pondering political dysfunction

Making the decision to stay in Washington was not easy, says Collins. Being a governor has hands-on appeal. Nor is it easy being a senator in today’s deeply divided world – especially when, as is the case with Collins, you are a swing vote.

Hyper-partisanship and a lack of civility are at the root of political dysfunction, Collins believes. In the interview, she said she’s thought a lot about whether the fault lies with Washington or whether Washington reflects the country, and has come to the conclusion that it’s both.

She laments that Americans segregate themselves politically on social media, in their intake of news and interactions with each other, and even in their choice of where to live. “Our society needs to become less fragmented and more open to alternative viewpoints,” she says.

The growth of outside political groups has meanwhile weakened the parties, often exceeding their power, particularly in campaign funding and advertising, she says.

She cites the president’s former strategic advisor Steve Bannon's targeting of Republicans in primaries while Bernie Sanders supporters “go after” moderate Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. Their influence – financial and otherwise – makes members “concerned and skittish” because they can create “real electoral trouble.”

In her view, bipartisan groups like “No Labels” need to ramp it up. “They need to become fanatical moderates. They need to be as vocal and as active and as engaged as people on the far left and the far right.” 

Working across the aisle

What she can personally do about this is to continue to act as a bridge-builder, one who brings senators from both parties together, she says. Collins pointed to a dinner that she put together at a local restaurant after the first Obamacare repeal effort failed in the Senate. About a dozen senators from both parties came. “That was encouraging” and bipartisan efforts continue. That kind of bringing together is typical of her, and helped to end the partial government shutdown of 2013.

Rather surprisingly, Collins is hopeful on tax reform. The better way to have started this year, she says, would have been to begin with a bipartisan win – infrastructure – and then gone on to tax reform, dealing with the highly partisan issue of health care last.

That said, she thinks some lessons have been learned from the health-care debacle. It looks like the Senate is going to proceed with a more normal process – hearings, marking up the bill in committee, and giving Democrats an opportunity to offer amendments. She’s talked with many Democrats, and they want a bill, as does the president.

Collins traces her roots in public service back to her own family – both her mother and father were mayor of her hometown of Caribou – and also to Maine’s first female senator, Margaret Chase Smith. A young Collins had a chance to meet the senator when she was 18, visiting the Capitol on a youth program. Senator Smith spent nearly two hours with Collins, and Collins came away with the message to “stand tall” for what she believed in. Indeed, Smith talked of her own “Declaration of Conscience” speech in which she spoke out against McCarthyism on the Senate floor. 

What does Collins tell today’s youth, brought up in an age of political combat in which “government” is a dirty word for many and Americans’ approval of Congress is practically in the cellar?

She had an opportunity to share her thoughts with students right after her talk, when she took pictures with a group of high-schoolers who were invited to the breakfast.

“I talked to the group, [saying] that government is like teaching. It is an area where you can affect lives and make a difference,” she says. “There aren’t that many fields where you can really affect people’s lives.”

She tries to bring that home by specifically pointing to the good that government can do – from funding their internships to helping develop the waterfront of their town. 

One of the students, when asked before her announcement whether Collins should run for governor, answered emphatically: “She should run for president!” A junior at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, Peter Alexander worries that America’s political system has “gotten to the point where we can’t fix it.”

People need to be more open-minded, he says. One of his classmates agrees, chiming in: “As a generation, we can make things better.”

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