Susan Collins on ‘divisiveness’

SUSAN COLLINS ON ‘DIVISIVENESS’…. Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine has a fairly long op-ed in the Washington Post today on civility, denouncing the “bomb-throwing, scorched-earth, incendiary political rhetoric” that’s come to dominate much of the discourse. I don’t doubt for a moment that Collins is entirely sincere, and would gladly play a constructive role in elevating the tone of our larger political conversation.

I’d even go so far as to suggest some of Collins’ concerns have at least some merit. Congress has become less collegial. Norms and traditions that used to be honored in the Senate have disappeared. Far too many lawmakers really would prefer to “draw sharp distinctions and score political points, even if that means neglecting the problems our country faces.”

I’d argue there are larger systemic, procedural, and policy concerns of greater importance than “poisonous words,” but Collins’ concerns are hardly baseless, and I’m not inclined to criticize her for raising them.

But reading her take on the subject is nevertheless exceedingly frustrating, because there’s a gap between Collins’ observations and the reality shaped by Collins’ actions.

Collins notes, for example, that she felt compelled to help her party kill a defense authorization bill — which would have led to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — because Senate Democrats wouldn’t let Republicans push enough extraneous amendments to run out the clock on the session. Kevin Drum has a good take on this, but to make a long story short, Dems are limiting amendments because the GOP hasn’t left them much of a choice. Regardless, it’s hardly an excuse for mandating 60-vote super-majorities on literally every vote of any significance.

But that’s really just the tip of a misguided iceberg.

The way out is far from clear, but I would suggest that a divided government and a more evenly split Senate are more conducive to bipartisanship than the super-majorities and one-party control of the White House and Congress that we see today. When one party has all the power, the temptation is to roll over the minority, leading to resentment and resistance because the minority has so few options.

Collins may not fully appreciate this, but Democrats don’t have “all the power,” because Senate Republicans, as a matter of course, block everything they can and Dems lack the ability to stop them. For that matter, whatever “temptation” Dems might have to “roll over the minority,” it’s worth emphasizing that the White House and Democratic leaders on the Hill have routinely pleaded with the GOP to strike bipartisan deals (on stimulus, health care, energy, Wall Street reform, immigration, etc.). In every instance, nearly every Republican has refused to compromise.

When I led the effort in 2009 to try to produce a more fiscally responsible stimulus bill, I was attacked by partisans on both sides. On the left, I was attacked by columnists for cutting $100 billion from the bill and mocked in the blogosphere as “Swine Flu Sue” for my contention that spending for a pandemic flu did not belong in the stimulus package but should be part of the regular appropriations process. On the right, I was denounced as a traitor and a RINO (“Republican in name only”), and one of my Republican colleagues targeted me for a campaign that generated tens of thousands of out-of-state e-mails denouncing me.

Actually, another Republican, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, went even further, suggesting Collins might be a communist. A year later, Collins nevertheless announced her support for Toomey, traveled to Pennsylvania to endorse him, and even helped him raise money.

And there’s the point that Collins just doesn’t seem to understand. Her opinion piece says she’d like to see “those who put partisanship over progress and conflict over compromise” lose elections, but there’s no evidence she means it. If she did, she wouldn’t support a right-wing bomb-thrower like Toomey, who named Collins the “Comrade of the Month” for her role in helping rescue the economy from a depression last year.

Indeed, there’s a larger context that Collins seems to deliberately ignore. Her party keeps moving further and further to a hysterical right-wing cliff, but she says and does nothing about it. Collins actually does the opposite — supporting extremists seeking Senate seats, and insisting that her party deserves to win “both” the House and Senate, despite its hard-core conservatism.

More to the point, she sees fringe candidates, Tea Party zealots, and unhinged media personalities undercutting the discourse and moving her party to the right, but instead of standing up to denounce the development, Collins applauds and enables the development.

For that matter, by helping her party’s unprecedented obstructionism, Collins is actually making matters worse, even as she complains about the trajectory.

I’m not reflexively opposed to her concerns, but it’s the context and the messenger that make Collins’ criticisms hard to take too seriously.