Sen. Collins’ vote on Republican tax plan risks her moderate reputation

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Sen. Susan Collins with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., at the Dirksen Office Building on Capitol Hill on Dec. 12. Both have advocated for bills that would help stabilize health insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act. Collins had hoped her colleagues would vote on the measures by year’s end. That didn’t happen, but she expects them to be taken up next month. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Sen. Susan Collins’ support for her party’s polarizing tax reform overhaul may have shored up her relationship with the White House and Republican congressional colleagues, but it also may have tarnished her reputation among centrists and liberals as a champion of process and policy-driven governance.

Collins, Maine’s most powerful elected official, was on the receiving end of both praise and withering criticism over the past week and a half as it became clear that she would join a party-line vote to support final passage of the $1.5 trillion bill – the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s tax code in decades – which delivers huge benefits to corporations and the wealthy.

Protesters were arrested at her offices in Maine, and reactions to her social media posts on the bill were overwhelmingly negative. At the same time, the state’s chamber of commercemanufacturing and retailers’ associations, and several large employers wrote letters praising Collins for a move they say will boost Maine’s economy. Ivanka Trump, who acted as a go-between for her father with Collins, thanked her for her support via Twitter.

VOTE LIKELY TO ALIENATE THE LEFT

The reaction from liberal and centrist quarters was furious, as many felt betrayed by a senator who sometimes bucks her party.

“Her basic problem is that she became a hero to Democrats and liberals in the Obamacare fight, and somehow they assumed that she would automatically end up where they wanted her to end up on the tax bill,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But, no, there’s a reason she’s a Republican and not a Democrat. And tax cuts, whether they make sense or not, are a magical elixir that can bring Republicans of all stripes together.”

The anger was palpable, and not just in Maine.

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a longtime friend of Collins’ husband, Tom Daffron, described the bill as a kleptocratic giveaway to the super-rich. “If Susan Collins votes for this bill, it violates everything she has stood for during her career,” he tweeted. “How can that be worth it?”

Paul Krugman, the liberal New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, expressed befuddlement at Collins’ support for the bill, which she made based on assurances from President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that they would back legislation to shore up health care markets. Collins had been feted by liberals for opposing her party’s controversial overhaul of Obamacare this summer, but the tax bill undermines the health insurance system by repealing the individual mandate provisions.

Sen. Susan Collins with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., at the Dirksen Office Building on Capitol Hill on Dec. 12. Both have advocated for bills that would help stabilize health insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act. Collins had hoped her colleagues would vote on the measures by year’s end. That didn’t happen, but she expects them to be taken up next month. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Sen. Susan Collins’ support for her party’s polarizing tax reform overhaul may have shored up her relationship with the White House and Republican congressional colleagues, but it also may have tarnished her reputation among centrists and liberals as a champion of process and policy-driven governance.

Collins, Maine’s most powerful elected official, was on the receiving end of both praise and withering criticism over the past week and a half as it became clear that she would join a party-line vote to support final passage of the $1.5 trillion bill – the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s tax code in decades – which delivers huge benefits to corporations and the wealthy.

Protesters were arrested at her offices in Maine, and reactions to her social media posts on the bill were overwhelmingly negative. At the same time, the state’s chamber of commercemanufacturing and retailers’ associations, and several large employers wrote letters praising Collins for a move they say will boost Maine’s economy. Ivanka Trump, who acted as a go-between for her father with Collins, thanked her for her support via Twitter.

VOTE LIKELY TO ALIENATE THE LEFT

The reaction from liberal and centrist quarters was furious, as many felt betrayed by a senator who sometimes bucks her party.

“Her basic problem is that she became a hero to Democrats and liberals in the Obamacare fight, and somehow they assumed that she would automatically end up where they wanted her to end up on the tax bill,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But, no, there’s a reason she’s a Republican and not a Democrat. And tax cuts, whether they make sense or not, are a magical elixir that can bring Republicans of all stripes together.”

The anger was palpable, and not just in Maine.

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a longtime friend of Collins’ husband, Tom Daffron, described the bill as a kleptocratic giveaway to the super-rich. “If Susan Collins votes for this bill, it violates everything she has stood for during her career,” he tweeted. “How can that be worth it?”

Paul Krugman, the liberal New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, expressed befuddlement at Collins’ support for the bill, which she made based on assurances from President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that they would back legislation to shore up health care markets. Collins had been feted by liberals for opposing her party’s controversial overhaul of Obamacare this summer, but the tax bill undermines the health insurance system by repealing the individual mandate provisions.

“She came out of health care a hero,” Krugman said via Twitter. “Now she is, rightly, seen as a fool, a tool, or both. And she can never get it back. What could possibly justify that choice?”

Political scientists from Maine and beyond say the move likely caused her at least short-term damage with many of the independents and moderate Democrats who helped her win re-election three years ago with 67 percent of the vote.

Like so many things in American civics today, the tax reform bill’s popularity varies wildly depending on one’s political affiliation. A CNN poll conducted Dec. 14-17 found that overall Americans opposed it 55 percent to 35 percent, but that those identifying as Republicans supported it by a margin of 76 percent to 13 percent. Democrats opposed it by a margin of 89 percent to 3 percent.

“She’s likely to be held accountable if she runs for re-election, and this is a very visible stance,” said Vanderbilt University political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer, a nationally recognized congressional expert. “After being a hero to moderates, liberals, independents, and Democrats on the (Obamacare) vote, you can get turned on pretty fast.”

‘TRUMPIFICATION’ OF SUSAN COLLINS

Because of its small size and relatively inexpensive television advertising market, Maine also makes an attractive target for Democratic strategists seeking to flip a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2020, Oppenheimer added. “A senator is a senator is a senator, and if you want to invest in a challenger to an incumbent, the cost of challenging is relatively low there,” he said. “So I suspect she is going to get targeted.”

The reputation damage among non-Republicans stems from a wide disparity between the bill’s content and the rushed method by which it was passed and Collins’ previous stances on both policy and process, argued Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine.

“Susan Collins has earned a reputation over the years for being a serious legislator and really stood for having regular order and to have the experts look at a bill and hold hearings, but she cast that all aside for this particular bill,” Fried said. “Like many Republicans, she has a strong commitment to keeping taxes as low as possible, but they really could have written a much better bill that could have done that and would have been popular.”

Brian Duff, head of the political science department at the University of New England, said he was struck by how Collins justified the bill, including at least one national television interview in which she appeared to claim that the tax cuts would pay for themselves, and others where she cited economists whose work supported these claims, when some of the economists themselves came forward to say they did not.

“There was almost a Trumpification of Susan Collins in the way she was cherry-picking half-truths about this bill and then repeating them ad nauseam,” Duff said. “This is not unusual in politics, but this is not what we expect her to do.”

(Collins’ office has said the senator didn’t intend to convey that the tax cuts will pay for themselves, only that the economic growth they spur will generate hundreds of billions in tax revenue to help offset the cost.)

ALLIES NOTE SHE IMPROVED BILL

The bill also contains many provisions Collins opposed, from permitting drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to lowering the top tax rate for individuals.

“I think this is a significant turning point,” Duff said. “She has lumped herself in with Trump and McConnell now in a way she hadn’t before, and it’s happening at a moment when people are reassessing the Republican Party and she’s chosen her side.”

Nonsense, said political consultant Lance Dutson, a former Collins staffer who served as communications director for her last political campaign. He argued that Collins hasn’t been inconsistent at all.

“Because she voted against the health care bill, people started losing track of the fact that she’s a Republican and she likes smaller government and lower taxes,” Dutson said. “She’s not a progressive Democrat.”

What Collins did, he said, was to take a bill whose ultimate goal she agreed with and try to improve it as much as possible, clawing back $10,000 of the previously unlimited deduction for state and local income taxes, and retaining the medical expense deduction. “She was part of the process to make the bill better for the people of Maine, and that’s not out of character with anything she’s done in the past,” he said. “When the storms are blowing, she’s not afraid to try to climb the mast and fix it.”

That’s exactly what Collins has done, says her spokeswoman, Annie Clark, enumerating the ways the senator intervened: She was the sole Republican to vote for an unsuccessful measure to remove the Arctic wildlife refuge drilling provision; she argued for the removal of the Obamacare individual mandate repeal; she secured promises from colleagues to prevent an automatic $25 billion cut to Medicare, a promise they upheld during Thursday evening’s passage of a temporary measure to keep the federal government operating over the holidays.

When it became clear that the individual mandate repeal was going to be included in the tax package, Clark said, Collins was the only member of the Republican caucus working to mitigate the collateral damage to health insurance markets, garnering those assurances from McConnell and Trump that they would support passage of two bills before year’s end that would help stabilize the markets. The bills weren’t adopted before Congress adjourned for the year, but Collins has said she expects them to be taken up as part of the budget bill early next month.

AWAITING ACA STABILIZATION

“The deadline slipped and we’re disappointed about that because it’s not the outcome we wanted, but this isn’t over,” Clark said. “The broader picture is that, but for her, nobody would have done anything to mitigate the damage – those bills were dead. No one is as dogged in trying to make sure we don’t have double-digit increases to premiums.”

As for any potential political damage, Clark said tax reform may win people over with time, noting that 72 percent of Mainers take the standard deduction, which the bill nearly doubles. “She is a Republican and she believes that tax cuts promote economic growth, and if there’s more jobs and more money in people’s pockets, in the long run that will be politically popular,” she said. “She thinks though this bill is imperfect, overall it’s good policy.”

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