Susan Collins likes to imagine that she serves in the independent-minded, country-over-party tradition of another Republican senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith.
But where Smith is remembered for issuing a “Declaration of Conscience” that challenged the drift of her party toward the extremism of former Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.), Collins is defending the role of the McCarthy-like extremists who have embraced Donald Trump’s authoritarianism and the anti-democratic scheming that extends from it.
Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, Collins tried to present herself as a responsible Republican who supported efforts to get to the bottom of the plotting that led to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters who were bent on overturning the results of the 2020 election. “I fought very hard to have an independent, bipartisan, nonpartisan commission to look at all of the events of that day,” she said, “and I’m very disappointed that it was not approved. I think it would’ve had far more credibility than Speaker Pelosi’s partisan committee.”
The current senator from Maine is a master of self-serving obfuscation, so it’s no surprise that she failed to mention the most salient detail regarding the collapse of her efforts to establish the independent commission: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked it.
What was striking, however, was the hubris she displayed when spouting that line about Pelosi’s “partisan committee.” As Collins well knows, the US House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol includes a pair of Republicans—Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois—who joined her in seeking to hold Trump to account for his role in inciting the insurrection.
When Jake Tapper asked if Collins had faith in Cheney and Kinzinger, the senator responded, “I respect both of them but I do not think it was right for the speaker to decide which Republicans should be on the committee. Normally, if you have a select committee, the minority leader and the speaker get to pick the members.”
That sounds reasonable until we remember that minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had already made a mockery of the process by selecting Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana to serve on the House committee. Both men fully embraced Trump’s Big Lie and voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Jordan could yet be called as a material witness by the committee, as he had direct communications with Trump on January 6.
Collins knows that making Jordan a member of the committee would have turned the inquiry into a circus. Yet she is attacking Pelosi for rejecting the Ohioan and other Republicans who are part of the problem. This is political gamesmanship at its ugliest, and we all know why Collins is engaging in it. She’s a legislative lifer who intends to stay in the Senate for as long as she can; maintaining good relations with McConnell and Trump’s allies matters a lot more to the supposed “moderate” than does the prospect of getting at the truth of what happened before, during, and after January 6.
That’s a far cry from what Margaret Chase Smith did on June 1, 1950, when, as a first-term senator and the only woman in the chamber, she went to the floor of the Senate and announced:
Mr. President, I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear. It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership either in the legislative branch or the executive branch of our government. That leadership is so lacking that serious and responsible proposals are being made that national advisory commissions be appointed to provide such critically needed leadership.
I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism. I speak as simply as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence. I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart. Mr. President, I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States senator. I speak as an American.
With that, Smith began the “Declaration of Conscience,” in which she called out McCarthy and McCarthyism at a point when senior Republicans lacked the courage to speak up about their colleague from Wisconsin’s big lies, character assassination, and wild-eyed “red baiting.” Her speech featured some criticism of President Harry Truman’s Democratic administration. “Yet,” she added, “to displace it 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.”
Smith concluded on a hopeful note, suggesting that she expected a campaign based on those tenets would fail “simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.”
Seventy years later, Donald Trump and Jim Jordan are doing their best to forge a Republican agenda that relies on fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear to prevail. I like to think, as Smith did in 1950, that Americans will reject a Trumped-up Republican Party. But I’d be a lot more confident in that prospect if Susan Collins were speaking up with the courage of Margaret Chase Smith.