On December 2, Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted in favor of a tax bill that will make American public life unrecognizable, irreparably rolling back Lyndon B. Johnson’s idea of the Great Society and remaking society in Ayn Rand’s image.
The House of Representatives now gets to take their own crack at the bill before sending it back to the Senate. Collins says she remains undecided on her vote for the final version of the tax bill. “I’m going to look at what comes out of the conference committee meeting to reconcile the differences between the Senate and House bill. So I won’t make a final decision until I see what that package is,” Collins told CBS on Sunday.
Also on Sunday, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt wrote a column arguing that Collins and other supposedly moderate Republicans were “duped” into supporting the bill.
Here’s the back story: Collins said that she would vote for the recent Senate tax bill so long as Republicans leaders promised to pass other legislation — in the near future — that would reduce the bill’s knock-on damage to health care programs.
She laid out three conditions. She wanted her colleagues to pass two separate bills that would shore up insurance markets for people who weren’t covered through their job. And she wanted congressional leaders to promise to undo the Medicare cuts automatically triggered by the deficit increase from the tax cut. Her colleagues assured her they would pass the bills she wanted — not immediately but soon after the tax bill had passed. Collins decided that was good enough, and on Dec. 2, she became one of 51 yes votes on the tax bill.
You can probably guess how this story ends. After the tax bill passed the Senate, Congressional Republicans started walking back from their promises to pass these future health care bills. Leonhardt is correct to call out the disparities in Collins’ thinking here. But should it really be assumed that Collins was “duped,” and not that she was simply looking for political cover?
Any Senate Republican who has been semi-conscious for the past eight years should know there is zero to no reason to trust Mitch McConnell to follow through on his promises (recall the great McConnell-Cruz Beef of 2014). The entire Senate GOP conference is a pit of vipers, and there is no reason anyone inside or outside of it should trust them to promise anything without assuming they have their fingers crossed behind their backs.
Further, it’s effectively impossible for McConnell to promise to pass any legislation that requires making it through the House, where Republican leadership has been clearly in thrall to its most extreme members for years. Did Collins really think McConnell could speak for the intentions of the House Freedom Caucus, a gang not even House Speaker Paul Ryan can get to fall in line?
So in exchange for her vote, Collins received, at best, a cosmetic fix that she will have to pretend is something more.
What was her mistake? It was both tactical and strategic.
The tactical error was to fritter her moment of leverage, when the Senate bill’s fate was uncertain and she had the potential to influence other swing senators. Instead of demanding something real, she accepted vague promises.
To assume that Collins was “duped” into voting for the tax bill requires thinking that she is profoundly stupid. She might be, but I don’t think she is. An alternate analysis is that Collins is not naive; that she knew all along that McConnell’s promises were worthless; and that she simply wanted a reason to justify (to constituents or to herself) voting for the tax bill. Vote for the bill, then perform disappointment when McConnell pulls the rug out from under you or the House refuses to even consider the “deal” you claim you were promised. Bada-bing, bada-boom.
Her strategic error is the one that holds lessons for other would-be centrists. Namely, she defined the political center in relative terms rather than substantive terms. Republican leaders — not just Trump, but McConnell and Ryan too — have moved sharply to the right. They are rushing through a bill without the normal procedures. They are making verifiably false claims about it. And they have decided that taking health insurance away from Americans is a core Republican principle.
In his column, Leonhardt makes the same strategic error he accuses Collins of making: He assumes Collins is telling us her plans in good faith, and extrapolating from there. But maybe Occam’s Razor holds here. Maybe the simplest answer is the correct one. Maybe Collins didn’t make a mistake in voting for the tax bill on December 2. Maybe she voted for the tax bill because she wanted to vote for the tax bill.
Susan Collins is not an innocent bystander to the country’s destruction by her party, and it’s time for political commentators to stop treating her as such. Susan Collins is a centrist in today’s Republican Party, which is to say she surpasses the lowest possible bar for basic human decency that exists. Susan Collins is a moderate Republican in the same way that your Aunt Sue is your favorite aunt by default, because at least Aunt Sue doesn’t drink too much chardonnay and tell you the HPV vaccine is going to kill you.
If I had to bet, I’d say Susan Collins will vote for the final version of the tax bill, knowing full well that most of her constituents in Maine would detest it if they knew all its grisly details. I hope she proves me wrong.