Monday, September 22, 2008

The Hamlet Act

Sen. Collins' refusal to stake out any concrete position on the Bush administration's $700 billion bailout plan is unethical. It's irresponsible.

But it's also pretty typical behavior from the junior senator. At least in certain circumstances.

When the Republican position on an issue is politically palatable in Maine, Susan Collins has no problem toeing the party line.

But the rest of the time--when the Democratic position is preferred (health care, Iraq) or when partisan divisions get scrambled--Collins resorts to describing the problem instead of offering solutions. She resorts to calls for hard work and hearings. And she resorts to empty calls for less partisanship and more moderation.

And then at the last minute before the vote, she hops off the fence and sides (almost always) with the Republicans, while bemoaning the absence of a non-ideological alternative.

This is what happened in the egregious (and now unconstitutional) Military Commissions Act. It's what happened on Alito. And it happened on Iraq in vote after vote after vote.

The only difference this time is how quickly events are unfolding, how fluid the partisan landscape seems to be, and how high the stakes are.

There is, of course, a cost to all the vacillating: It's no wonder that Collins ranks 68th in effectiveness among senators and in the bottom half among Republicans. Or that she ranks 63rd in bringing home earmarks.

After all, how much sway can you have with colleagues if you're more comfortable responding to events than shaping them? How much leverage can you amass if you refuse to stand up publicly on major issues until the last minute?

With Maine's media in her pocket, it's been a politically astute approach for Collins. But it's been a disaster for her constituents.

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