When Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was rejected as Ronald Reagan’s nominee for a federal judgeship by the Republican-led US Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, moderate Republicans cast the essential “no” votes.
All eight Democrats on the committee rejected Sessions—whose nomination was opposed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, the American Jewish Congress, the National Council of Churches, and the 185 coalition members of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. They were joined by two Republicans, Charles Mathias Jr. of Maryland and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, in refusing to recommend approval of the nomination. And Mathias joined the Democrats in effectively blocking the further progress of the Sessions nomination by voting against sending the nomination to the Senate floor without a recommendation.
Thirty years ago, moderate Republicans upheld the basic standards to which presidential nominees must be held. But not anymore. So-called “moderate” Republican Susan Collins abandoned that standard on Tuesday and championed President Trump’s nomination of Sessions to serve as attorney general of the United States.
Because of some past breaks with party orthodoxy, particularly on social issues, Maine’s Senator Collins is still imagined by casual observers of the Senate to be a “moderate Republican.” It’s an image that Collins has fostered over the years, as she has sought to retain a Senate seat representing a New England state that regularly backs Democrats for the presidency.
This false yet lingering impression that Collins is a “moderate” made her appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee one of the major moments of the first day of hearings on the Sessions nomination. Collins was portrayed in media reports as an “unlikely ally” of her fellow senator. In fact, she appeared before the committee as an ardent partisan, supporting a Republican president-elect’s most controversial Cabinet pick—and doing her best to dismiss credible criticisms of the nominee.
Even as civil-rights and women’s-rights protesters were removed from the committee room, Collins reimagined the fiercely conservative Sessions—whose nomination is opposed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Organization for Women—as an ally of racial reconciliation, inclusiveness and bipartisan compromise. Those who oppose Sessions just don’t know him, argued Collins, who said she wanted the committee to accept the Alabama politician as a “genuine, fair-minded person.”
“I have never witnessed anything to suggest that Senator Sessions is anything other than a dedicated public servant and a decent man,” Collins told committee members, before repeating talking points that claim Sessions “is not motivated by racial animus.”
Alabama civil rights advocates, who know Sessions and his record, beg to differ.
“Despite 30 years of our nation moving forward on inclusion and against hate, Jeff Sessions has failed to change his ways,” says Benard Simelton, the president of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP. “He’s been a threat to desegregation and the Voting Rights Act and remains a threat to all of our civil rights, including the right to live without the fear of police brutality.”
Mainers disagree, as well, with the decision of their Senator to step up as a leading proponent of the Sessions selection. “Collins’s offices in Portland and Bangor were packed with protesters this morning,” Maine Public Radio reported Tuesday morning. “They are calling on Collins to withdraw her support for Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator Donald Trump has nominated for U.S. Attorney General.”
“Senator Collins is leading the fight to confirm the most racist, homophobic, anti-woman, anti-immigrant person we could possible imagine to be the defender of the U.S. Constitution,” complained former Maine State Representative Diane Russell.
The crowds of protesters in Maine argued that Collins was breaking faith not merely with the traditions of moderate Republicanism—and her own history of moderation on social issues—but with the values of her home state.
“Whether it is women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights or marijuana legalization, Maine has led the way,” explained Russell. “Sessions has been a long-time staunch opponent of Maine values. Make no mistake, if confirmed as AG, his interpretation of the law will harm Maine people here at home.”
The truth is that Susan Collins has never been so outspoken or effective a dissenter as former Maine Republican senators such as Margaret Chase Smith and Olympia Snowe. She has always been more steadily conservative and rigorously partisan than the moderates of the past. During the Bush and Obama presidencies, her partisanship repeatedly got the better of Collins. And even on those occasions when she has broken with party leaders, she rarely has done so with the clarity or consistency displayed by principled Republicans such as Charles Mathias during the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations.
While Mathias was referred to as “the conscience of the Senate,” Collins was anything but conscientious when she chose not merely to support Sessions but to champion his nomination to serve as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer.