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“This is not a Republican problem. This is not a Democratic problem. It’s an American problem. We need to come together…”

And that is my senior senator, Susan Collins of Maine. She’s talking about health care, and she could be talking about a lot of things and say, basically, that.

She is moderate, but she is slippery. She is hard to pin down, but she is reasonable. She listens to all sides, but she listens to all sides. She thinks that anger is not a solution, but she’s not (apparently) angry about much of anything. She didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but she’s willing to work with him (or anyone).

She might run for Governor of Maine. I probably won’t vote for her. But I might. We could do better. But we could do a lot worse (look at our current governor, Paul Lepage, who, among other things, is one of the stupidest and stubbornest people in politics, not a happy combination).

And that, in a nutshell, is my Susan Collins problem.

Susan Collins is no ideologue. She likes to work with the other side of the aisle. She made Donald Rumsfeld very angry more than once when he was George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense. Unlike her former colleague, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins only almost voted once for a version of the Affordable Care Act. She has her own new health care proposal, Cassidy-Collins, which would maintain a lot of the A.C.A. and replace the individual mandate—really, the heart of the A.C.A.—with an opt-out for the uninsured; that might work.

Susan Collins is great at outreach and constituent relations. (But she did, earlier this year when Congress was getting bowled over by voter anger, opine, or whine, that some of the calls her office was getting were from “out of state” that were “overwhelming her staff,” an evasion that was scoffed at across Maine.)

Susan Collins opposed Trump’s more ridiculous cabinet choices—particularly Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt—but both did survive votes in the Senate, with DeVos getting through only with the Vice President breaking an unprecedented (but predictable) tie. It’s been claimed that Collins only opposed DeVos when she was sure it wouldn’t matter—Collins could have prevented the nomination from reaching the floor, after all. (Collins claimed to be acting on principle.)

And that’s my Susan Collins problem.

Susan Collins is among the last of a species—the moderate Republican. (That Barack Obama was and remains a moderate Democrat has not sunk in for most people.) She seems to truly believe in bipartisanship, cooperation, hard work, and, above all, listening. She tacks between opposites, where Bill Clinton famously “triangulated.”

But the presidency of Donald Trump, the entry into the White House of Steve Bannon (whom some dare call a traitor), the fact that people like Scott Pruitt seem almost moderate by comparison—and the blunt use of race and gender identity politics, by the right wing, threatens our very democracy—and a general refusal to consider systemic change to deal with systemic problems—these are challenges not to the Collins idea of cooperative legislative work, but to the very usefulness of Collins at all.

Her instinctive niceness is just not the tool we need.

And that is my Susan Collins problem.

She is trusted but does not necessarily deserve to be. She is moderate, even on the issue of which gains of the working class, women, blacks, immigrants, gays (and on and on) should be traded away. Her habit of aiming for the middle is easily manipulated by people who are willing to pull the right endpoint toward infinity.

And yet, like most voters (certainly in Maine), I know the system can’t be healed by more political gunfire. I know that renewal of our democratic ideals—cooperation, compromise, civility, listening to each other—is what we need more than anything. And I (a registered Democrat who voted at least twice for Olympia Snowe) actually do trust Susan Collins.

Susan Collins is not enough, but we need people like her. She’s not sufficient, but she might at least be necessary. She’s not enough to save us, but she might be the best we can get.

And that is my Susan Collins problem.

 

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