Bob Neal

News reports often link their names as moderate Republicans U.S. senators. The pair are from two of the smallest states in the country. One is staking out a position of potential heroism while the other, as usual, remained mostly silent when it really mattered.

They are Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. The potentially brave one, of course, is Murkowski. That leaves Collins. Yep. No surprise there.

The Murkowski story broke on Sunday, always a news-desert day. To further obscure the news, it wasn’t just any Sunday but the first Sunday of March Madness, the NCAA women’s and men’s basketball tourneys. If you want to drop a bomb that no one hears, do it during March Madness.

In a CNN interview, Murkowski left the door open to leaving the Republican Party. “I wish that as Republicans, we had … a nominee that I could get behind,” Murkowski told Manu Raju of CNN. “I certainly can’t get behind Donald Trump.”

Asked if she would become an independent, Murkowski, said: “I’m very independent minded.” When Raju pressed her on becoming an independent, she said: “I am navigating my way through some very interesting political times. Let’s just leave it at that.”

To her credit, Collins on Thursday said she won’t vote for Trump. But she seemed to shut the door on the idea of going independent, casting herself in the mode of a “New England Republican” such as the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan.


Smith earned a page in history by denouncing an earlier demagogue from her own party, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, for his witch hunts. Collins, at best, will get a footnote in history, and it will need to be a long history for her to merit even that much.

I’m not calling Murkowski a hero. Not just yet. But she has put herself in a position of stepping up, a la Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, who showed us all that The Former Guy has no clothes.

John F. Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, wrote a book 69 years ago (“Profiles in Courage”) lauding members of Congress who bucked party to do the right thing, as they saw it.

Five of Kennedy’s eight were forced from office. John Quincy Adams resigned from the House after breaking with the Federalist Party to vote for the Louisiana Purchase. Sens. Thomas Hart Benton, D-Missouri, and Sam Houston, D-Texas, lost their seats by opposing slavery in new states. Sen. George Norris, R-Nebraska, lost re-election for backing the New Deal. Sen. Edmund G. Ross, R-Kansas, voted not to convict President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat and enslaver.

Ross’s rationale was that the impeachment voted by the House was partisan. True, racism was not the issue, but Johnson’s reversal of Reconstruction ignited Republican antipathy toward him.

Three others fared a bit better. Robert A. Taft, R-Ohio, kept his Senate seat but by opposing the Nurnberg trials lost so much support in that he failed to get the 1948 Republican presidential nomination. Daniel Webster and Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar survived the uproar when they bucked their parties, but each resigned to take a federal cabinet position.


The lesson to an elected official seeking to self-perpetuate is pretty clear. You’ll pay with your sinecure if you buck the party. It happened to six of Kennedy’s brave eight.

As Trump has taken over the party of Reagan — I was no Reagan fan, but I acknowledge that he was always ready to compromise to get things done — several high-profile officials have had an opportunity to do the right thing. But they let the opportunity pass.

Chief among them is Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican Senate leader and the highest-profile American ever to survive a “spine-ectomy,” He has not publicly opposed Trump and even endorsed him this year, despite reports of his private disdain for TFG.

Others reportedly disagreed with the direction Trump was taking us but chickened out rather than speak truth to power. Chief among them is Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. As speaker of the House, Ryan could have been one of the grown-ups in the room. He opted instead to quit.

At least 161 Republican federal officials (in Congress, the cabinet and White House) publicly refused to back Trump in 2020. Of those, 141, or 88%, endorsed Joe Biden. Among them were William Cohen of Maine, ex-senator and defense secretary; Gen. Colin Powell, ex-secretary of state; Christine Todd Whitman, ex-head of the Environmental Protection Agency; Reps. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma and John Kasich of Ohio. These brave few were willing to pay the price.

Top officials who opposed Trump but didn’t back Biden include Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s first secretary of defense, and John Bolton, his national-security adviser. While she didn’t back Biden, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, sacrificed her career to expose the emperor’s nudity.

We had three models. Defy and work to beat Trump (Cheney). Oppose Trump but remain silent on alternatives (Mattis). Knuckle under and let Trump lead you by your nose ring (McConnell).

Though she won’t vote for Trump, Collins left the door open to doing his bidding. I’d call that a profile in self-preservation.

Bob Neal was enrolled Republican until July 2016. He read the handwriting on the wall and became a Democrat, running in 2022 for the state Legislature. He lost and is now unenrolled. Neal can be reached at

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