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Sen. Susan Collins Was Known As A Moderate Republican — At Least Before Trump

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Susan Collins - for years, her brand has been the moderate Republican - independent, a workhorse, a senator, powerful within her own party, even as Democrats sought her out as a partner. But in the age of Trump, after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, after her vote to acquit in the impeachment trial, that brand, that persona is being called into question. Writer Rebecca Traister went searching for who Susan Collins really is, and she lays out what she found in her New York magazine profile of the senator headlined "The Immoderate Susan Collins." Rebecca Traister joins me now from our New York studios.

Rebecca, welcome.

REBECCA TRAISTER: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Start with where Susan Collins grew up, where she still lives. This is Aroostook County, Maine, which I gather you know well. Your mom's from there, and you've spent a lot of time there.

TRAISTER: My mom is from there. Susan Collins is from a town called Caribou in Aroostook County, which is Maine's northernmost county. It's very rural. It's an extremely remote part of the world. It leans politically conservative. There is a particular kind of mentality about an Aroostook County personality that I think is important to understanding the role that she's played and the figure she's cut in the state of Maine.

KELLY: You refer to her all through the piece as a county girl. What does that mean?

TRAISTER: Well, there's a sense of toughness, right? She herself talks about how she grew up picking potatoes, so she did not grow up on a potato farm. But in Aroostook, up until recently - and still many schools do have a harvest break where kids in the fall get three weeks off of school to go participate in the potato harvest. And what that meant, certainly in Susan Collins' youth, was picking potatoes out of the dirt, putting them in baskets, dumping these - heaving these heavy baskets into larger potato barrels, like real hard farm work.

There's this sense that if you grew up in Aroostook, like, there's a kind of toughness. There's a flintiness. Lots of people mentioned this to me when I talked to people who'd known her, her family, who'd worked for her. They talk about that being key to understanding who she is.

KELLY: So when this county girl first shows up at the U.S. Senate - she first ran in 1996 - what type of senator was she then? I mean, did she start carving out the moderate Republican brand right at the start?

TRAISTER: Well, she carved it out for herself, but she was following in a very wide and historic lane for Maine politicians. Maine has this incredibly rich history of independent politics. So you had Bill Cohen, who was a congressman and then a senator. When he was a congressman, he's the Republican who famously broke with his party on Nixon during Watergate. So yes, she advertised herself that she was going to be a moderate who was going to take an independent approach in the spirit of Bill Cohen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSAN COLLINS: I'm running for the Senate because I want to bring those time-honored Maine values of hard work, common sense, reason and integrity to Washington, D.C. I want to continue the independent, moderate and thoughtful tradition of Bill Cohen.

KELLY: Her voting record at the time suggested she was willing to vote in ways that bucked the Republican Party at that time. Is that right?

TRAISTER: She was. She took a couple of really crucial votes in opposition to her party, including voting to acquit Bill Clinton. She voted with just a couple of other Republican senators against the so-called partial birth abortion ban. She absolutely cast votes that were not along a party line in the years when she first got to the Senate.

KELLY: In 2015, five years ago, Susan Collins had the second-highest approval rating of any senator - second highest. Fast-forward to now, 2020, she is the most unpopular American senator. That's remarkable. Did she change? Did the party change, the country change? What happened?

TRAISTER: Well, one thing that changed about her was that she started voting in line with her party at a higher rate than ever before in her career and specifically with a president, Donald Trump, who she herself before his election had called unfit in an editorial in August of 2016.

KELLY: Yeah. She'd said she wouldn't vote for him. Now he's president. He's the leader of her party. And suddenly, what is her record of voting in line with his policies?

TRAISTER: In 2017 and 2018, which were the years that her party had a very narrow majority and every vote of hers counted - in many cases were crucial in deciding votes - she voted with President Trump 94% of the time.

KELLY: Including, perhaps most prominently, in the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, where she came out, gave a 45-minute floor speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLINS: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Senator Collins, please vote no.

TRAISTER: Yeah. There was an enormous amount of pressure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Show up for (unintelligible). Vote no.

TRAISTER: A lot of the people I spoke to who went to her to tell their stories believed that she might vote against Kavanaugh, but of course she didn't. And she gave a speech on the floor that was 45 minutes and that was so much - she was so angry about the pressure that had been applied to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLINS: It looks more like a caricature of a gutter-level political campaign than a solemn occasion.

TRAISTER: And for many people I spoke to, that speech - even more than the vote, which many of them said, yeah, right, she was going to vote with her party - it was the speech that put them over the edge.

KELLY: What about this other, more recent moment when she was seen as maybe a swayable vote, a vote very much in question on the impeachment of Donald Trump?

TRAISTER: Susan Collins talks all the time. And many people who know and work with her, including both her admirers and her critics, point to the level of immersion in whatever question is in front of her. And so I think that process itself helps to create the air of possibility that many in the political press who cover her understand to be, oh, she could go in either direction. I don't think that anything that we've seen from her during a Trump administration specifically should have led anyone to think that she was going to vote for his conviction.

KELLY: How much freedom do you think Susan Collins feels she really has? I ask because you have a great line in here where you write that she's often portrayed as boxed in by mean Mitch McConnell on one side and disruptive activists on the other as if she's the victim of timing.

TRAISTER: I do not see Susan Collins as the victim of timing and circumstance because she has agency. She also has the power to choose to run again, which she is doing in 2020. It would be one thing if she said, look, I'm loyal to my party. I'm loyal to the president. This is who I am. But she is continuing to run ads in Maine and talk about her role as one of independent challenger of partisan norms.

KELLY: So what is your big takeaway here - about Susan Collins, but also just about what her career tells us about this moment in American history and American politics?

TRAISTER: What's fascinating to me about Susan Collins is that she is such a pivotal and powerful figure in a period where the stakes for so many millions of people are so enormously high, and the public sense of who she is - which is still, I think, this potentially swayable moderate force - I think doesn't match contemporary reality.

Maybe it is to some degree about how this particular figure who's had power within the Senate over a period of 23 years and wants another six, how she's changed. Some of it tells us about how partisan politics has changed. And some of it simply tells us about what it means to have power in this country and the choices that can be made by the powerful and how they have an impact on those who have vastly less power. And so it was all those sort of angles that drew me to her as a figure.

KELLY: Rebecca Traister, thank you.

TRAISTER: Thank you so much.

KELLY: That is the writer Rebecca Traister discussing her New York magazine profile of Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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