I’ve long admired U.S. Sen. Susan Collins for her civility, thoughtful approach to public policy, and moderation. But the erosion of America’s political center has left little breathing room for Collins, who has been increasingly obliged to resort to semantic dodges to conceal her capitulation to the demands of the Republican Party of President Donald Trump.

Trump’s upcoming Senate impeachment trial may provide a singular opportunity for Collins, who has just announced her intention to run for another term, to demonstrate that she still has the courage of her convictions.

Collins tack to the populist right has been most notably on display on two occasions during the past several years  — in December 2017 when, she voted in favor of a Republican tax cut, and  in October 2018, when she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

The tax bill substantially lowered corporate taxes as well as reducing individual rates, a move which was projected to raise the federal deficit by $1.4 trillion over a decade. It also rescinded the individual mandate for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which, it was estimated, would leave 13 million Americans uninsured and raise premiums an additional 10% each year.

Collins lamely defended her vote by announcing that she had received assurances from GOP congressional leaders that they would pass separate legislation to ameliorate the adverse impact of the individual mandate repeal on the ACA and that she had been advised by several prominent economists that the tax cuts would not increase the federal deficit.

Collins’ rationale was patent nonsense. No one familiar with the history of tax cuts could reasonably believe they would not lead to greater deficits, and Republican congressional leaders were not about to shore up the ACA, a piece of legislation they had long demonized as “Obamacare.”

Collins, who is pro-choice, was roundly criticized by women’s rights groups and progressives for her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh was expressly chosen by Trump, and backed by Republicans, because he was a reliably conservative jurist who was expected to join a bloc of like-minded justices to overturn Roe v. Wade.  His confirmation was considered a sure thing, until it was nearly up-ended by allegations of sexual misconduct during his student days.

I was not surprised or disappointed with Collins’ decision to vote for Kavanaugh. He was, after all, well qualified for the post and probably more moderate than others Trump might have chosen. I was appalled, however, at the way in which she justified her decision.  Stripped down to its essentials, Collins’ justification was that Christine Ford, who had accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her decades earlier, was sincere about having been molested by someone but must have mistaken that that someone was Kavanaugh.

This contention was, in fact, the go-to argument for most of the GOP members of the Senate. Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was so persuasive that few Republican legislators were willing to follow Trump’s lead in calling it a “hoax.”  Instead, they devised a gimmick to square the circle — to solve the insoluble dilemma of how to discredit a believable victim of sexual violence without alienating two-thirds of women voters in America.

In her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford came across as entirely credible. She was articulate, calm, measured, and serious in appearance and speech.  And she appeared to have no political axe to grind or the slightest desire for notoriety.  She was the kind of witness a jury would readily believe.

Kavanaugh, on the other hand, was often evasive in his answers to Senate Judiciary Committee members’ questions, at times responded to questions with questions, and became downright belligerent in his final statement to the committee.  These are considered “tells” that suggest a witness is prevaricating.

If Collins wanted to justify her vote for Kavanaugh she could have cited any number of valid reasons, such as:

1. We should assess this candidate based primarily on his life over the past three decades, during which his professional performance has been exemplary and his ethical conduct impeccable.

2. It’s unreasonable to expect the Judiciary Committee to conduct a quasi-criminal trial over charges which were never brought within the statute of limitations for those offenses.

3. It’s entirely possible that Kavanaugh acted aggressively towards Ford but was so intoxicated at the time that he really doesn’t remember it, or;

4. We shouldn’t assess people’s entire lives based on what they do as young adults before their personalities have been fully formed.  She still would have angered many of her Republican supporters, but at least she would have earned some respect for candor.

The Senate vote on the impeachment of Trump will offer Collins a similar choice as to whether to honestly address the charges against the president or to play verbal dodgeball.

The Republican talking points in Trump’s defense have come down to this: Either Trump was not trying to shake down the Ukrainian president into aiding his 2020 presidential election campaign by announcing a corruption investigation of Joe Biden’s son, or, if he was, his conduct was not criminal and did not amount to an impeachable defense.

Anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a log for the past three months should realize there’s more than enough evidence, including the president’s own words, to prove the attempted shake-down beyond a reasonable doubt. As for whether Trump’s conduct constituted an impeachable offense, forget for the moment he’s Trump or a Republican. Would anyone seriously consider it permissible for a U.S. president of either party to try to enlist, let alone coerce, a foreign leader into interfering in our election process? If that’s not an abuse of power, I don’t know what is.

It would take an act of raw political courage for Collins to vote for an impeachment conviction against Trump. If she does, it may well cost her job. If she doesn’t, however, it will almost certainly cost her something far more precious — her reputation.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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