In 1997, only seven months into the job as a senator, Susan Collins of Maine got what many of her colleagues wait years for: a glowing profile in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It described “a prim, earnest woman with a schoolmarm’s reserve” who had embraced moderation as her guiding philosophy. Collins, from the moment she arrived in Washington, was seen as a swing vote: A lobbyist wanted her to protect Nike’s factories in Asia, a Roman Catholic bishop called to lobby her on abortion, and the architects of new campaign finance legislation asked her to co-sponsor their bill. This “middle-of-the-roader from little Caribou, Maine,” was having a moment, the Times wrote. “It is the moderate Republicans who hold the balance of power in Washington now.”
Of course, moderates did not hold the real power in Washington in 1997. Newt Gingrich was two years into a speakership that would transform American politics. Between 1994 and 1999, he unveiled his “Contract With America,” shut down the government for 21 days, and led the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in a frantic, destabilizing period that would galvanize the right and forever change how business was done on Capitol Hill. By the end of his tenure, Gingrich had sidelined the establishment that once ruled politics, and yet mainstream reporters continued to view the system as they always had: as an institution controlled by its most moderate members.
After nearly 25 years in the Senate, Collins is still seen as a thoughtful moderate. But the truth is that her persona is mostly a myth concocted by a media unable to grasp the new reality of a bitterly divided politics. Congressional reporters have a conforming lexicon that guides their coverage. Perhaps no approach to writing about Congress has been more commonly accepted and less useful than framing its work as “political theater.” This was never a particularly compelling approach to covering the halls of power, but it has become especially damaging in an era when GOP politicians are unbound by the conventions of truth. Over the past 10 years, endless brinksmanship on funding the government or averting a default on the credit of the United States has been as predictable as it has been irresponsible. But mainstream journalists, trained to tell “both sides” of any story, couldn’t hold the reckless party eroding the functions of Congress to account without choosing a side. Instead, they had to invent drama—either by creating an aura of uncertainty around votes whose outcomes were largely certain or by promoting the narrative that a party was divided between factions.
To portray politics as “political theater,” reporters need players. And for more than a decade, Collins has been cast as a dutiful moderate, not because she is one, or because her constituents demanded that she vote like one (she hails from a state that twice elected Paul LePage—once dubbed “America’s craziest governor” by Politico for comparing the IRS to the Gestapo and sabotaging state government), but because journalists needed to frame Collins as a “leading” or “pivotal” moderate to create tension in their stories and to avoid facing the reality that the Washington they once knew—a Washington defined by a pragmatic centrism—had completely disintegrated, if it ever existed at all.
Collins became a central character in the story of the Senate almost as soon as she arrived in Washington. Her fellow Maine senator was Olympia Snowe, a Republican who had, by 1997, already defined herself as a true moderate. For the next 15 years, journalists flattened them into one person. As The Washington Post wrote in 2011, “Publicly, the duo is known for voting together. Lockstep. Straight down the middle. In the past 15 years, they have voted in unison on war, taxes, gays, guns, health care and the stimulus package.”
Then, in 2012, Snowe announced that she would retire. In some ways, this liberated Collins to be her own woman, but it never changed how the media perceived and wrote about her. Reporters continued to frame her as a moderate even as she tried to buddy up to Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina with hawkish stances on such national security issues as droning and NSA surveillance.
In the Trump era, there has been breathless coverage of Collins around every significant vote, from the Supreme Court confirmations of Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch to a massive Republican tax cut for the wealthy to impeachment. Collins has broken with the president on such issues as Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary. But reporters took those rare rebellious moments and clung to them, trying to create a sense of drama around bigger votes in which she invariably stuck to the party line, even if she playacted a sense of disappointment in the process.
Ultimately, the myth of Susan Collins says much more about Washington than it does about the senator herself, because if the playwrights stopped to think about the political theater they were crafting, they would have to acknowledge that a central theme of their coverage—the dramatic moment when a senator crosses party lines and changes the course of history—rarely happens now that the true moderates have retired or lost their reelection campaigns. Collins is herself in a tough reelection fight, and Democrats are banking that her alignment with Trump will hurt her in November. This, too, is predicated on a fundamentally misguided notion: Political strategists, as well as the media, tout the idea that elections hang on a core group of moderate, independent voters. Exit polling and final vote tallies from Senate elections over the past decade tell a different story: that the key to winning is not securing the most “independents” but turning out the base and winning nearly 100 percent of them. Moderate, independent voters, like moderate politicians, are going extinct.
Of course, a senator who reliably supports Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky—a politician who stole a Supreme Court seat, has consistently confirmed judges whom the American Bar Association considers unqualified, declared he would not run a fair impeachment trial, and once said his singular goal was to oust Barack Obama after only one term—can’t really be a moderate. But voters in Maine have been treated to more than two decades of stories lauding this “middle-of-the-roader from little Caribou, Maine,” for her independence. That may prove her downfall.