Susan Collins is often called one of the last centrists. She is a classic New England Republican, a senator who mostly votes with her party but is willing to buck it.
A couple of weeks ago, Collins made a classic Collins deal. It tried to split the difference between Democratic and Republican positions.
But it sure looks like a bum deal now. It also looks like a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to occupy the political center during the age of Donald Trump and a radicalized Republican Party.
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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 and Medicaid 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.
When Collins describes her deal, she makes it sound both ironclad – her word – and substantial. She has spoken of a personal commitment from Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. And she’s emphasized that the deal isn’t merely for show. It will, she insists, protect Medicaid and Medicare – two programs particularly important to Mainers, given the state’s large elderly population.
“I also got an ironclad commitment that we’re not going to see cuts in the Medicaid/Medicare program as a result of this bill,” Collins said on “Meet the Press.”
But some of Collins’ fellow Republicans evidently have a different definition of ironclad.
Within days of the Senate vote on the tax bill, conservative House Republicans started saying that they didn’t care about her deal. She did not make it with them, and they do not feel bound by it as they negotiate the bill’s final language with the Senate. These House members, as Politico put it Friday, have decided to “thumb their nose” at Collins.
Meanwhile, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, has been undermining Collins in his own way. He has made clear that he will use the new deficits created by the tax bill to justify the very thing Collins opposes: Medicare and Medicaid cuts. Those programs, Ryan told a talk-radio host, are “really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.” Cutting them is a top priority for 2018.
If anything, Ryan’s snub is more significant. House conservatives might still fold and approve the narrow deal that Collins thought she had. But Republicans will not permit the more meaningful promise she’s made – that the tax bill won’t lead to health care cuts. Tax cuts and health care cuts are inexorably bound.
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.
She can still vote against the version of the bill that emerges from House-Senate negotiations, but she doesn’t have the sway she did before. Senators usually don’t switch their vote at this stage, and the tax bill will pass without her if no other Republican flips (with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie.)
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.
Collins made the mistake of chasing after an impossible deal. She wanted to position herself between the two political parties, and she wanted to protect Medicare and Medicaid. When it proved impossible to do both, she claimed otherwise – and put a higher priority on politics than policy.
In Trump’s Washington, other centrist Republicans are going to face a version of her dilemma, again and again. They are going to have decide which matters more to them: being a loyal Republican or being an actual centrist.