Elections are about the future. Or so the adage goes.
But elections are also referendums on the performance of the incumbent. They're opportunities to hold officials accountable for their actions.
And Sen. Collins' has a lot to account for.
Because the contract Susan Collins has always had with Maine--the deal she struck with voters in 1996 and 2002--was that she would be an independent voice and a centrist. She presented herself as a problem-solver with little regard for party loyalty or hard-right Republican ideology.
And she was elected twice on that basis.
So when President Bush took office in 2001, it was dispiriting when Collins broke with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and most Democrats to vote for the President's unaffordable 2001 tax cut package slanted toward the rich. And it was troubling when she supported the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq even as questions were being raised about the seriousness of the threat.
But on Election Day in 2002, those immoderate votes didn't yet form a pattern. Collins could still plausibly argue that she'd done her best to act as a free agent.
Yet as we moved into 2003 and 2004 and 2005--as the Iraq war went off the rails, the Katrina disaster unfolded, deficits piled up, our international standing plummeted and the Bush administration ceded itself more and more power--we desperately needed leadership from sensible, independent-thinking Republicans.
In that moment of crisis, it was crucial for patriots of all political stripes to demand competence from the Bush administration. To stand up to its abuses. And to insist that the government live within its means.
As crisis struck, the country needed Susan Collins.
And as events unfolded, many of us were convinced she'd do the right thing. Sure, we doubted the sincerity of some of her bipartisan rhetoric. Yes, we thought she leaned further to the right than she generally let on.
But we believed that Collins was a straight-shooter and her own women.
We grouped her with Sen. Snowe, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) and a few others: Clear-headed Republicans who, when push came to shove, seemed more concerned with the public good than protecting their party's standard-bearer.
We took it for granted that she'd recognize the high stakes and stand up to the bullies in the GOP.
Because we thought of Susan Collins, at her core, as one of the good guys.
And so the fundamental choice Collins made during those dark days--to stand with President Bush rather than challenge him, to ratify his choices rather than oppose them--came as a shock.
As the country drifted toward illiberalism, geopolitical humiliation and financial ruin, we were simply stunned that Susan Collins' practical, non-ideological voice was nowhere to be found.
Instead, Collins seemed to double-down on her early support for the administration: She voted for two successive rounds of tax cuts for the rich, backed the administration down the line on Iraq and even refused entreaties from Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to hold hearings about the administration's corrupt, costly and deadly Iraq contracting practices.
Meanwhile, she supported the President's nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, backed granting retroactive legal immunity to phone companies who spied on their customers and voted in favor of the President's unconstitutional plan to obliterate the 800 year old right of habeas corpus, a foundational principle of Western law.
The upshot of these actions was a poorer, weaker country with less respect for the rule of law and less respect from its allies.
The result was an America with debilitated legal safeguards and an out-of-control executive branch--a nation a couple of giant steps down the road to becoming something other than a democratic republic.
And make no mistake: These things happened precisely because people like Susan Collins faded into the background: They happened because so many of the "good guys" sat on their hands, choosing accommodation and self-interest over the bold leadership that the moment required.
The absence of moderating influences left that the Bush administration free to use polarization and fear to implement its reactionary agenda.
And even as that agenda careened out of control--with corruption alone costing tens of billions of dollars and, yes, American lives--Collins still refused to speak up. Instead, she enabled. Given the quintessential opportunity to play a centrist role, she opted instead to be part of the cover up.
In short, when her country needed her most, Collins sloughed off her moderate persona. She shelved it--under the theory, presumably, that she'd be able to reclaim it at some later point.
And that point has now arrived.
Look: It's true that Maine voters need to consider carefully where both candidates want to take America.
But it's also inescapably true that if Mainers send Susan Collins back for a third term after she's forfeited her moderate credentials and failed the test of the last eight years, they will be sending a message to future candidates that commitments don't matter--that branding trumps all.
Maine will be saying that fecklessness in the face of disaster is tolerable. And that helping to advance the most destructive policies in a generation is forgivable.
Finally, reelection would send the message to Susan Collins that she can get away with pretty much anything.
And with the country in deep trouble because of the mistakes of public officials, that's an awfully dangerous message to send.