It was a pretty awful week for Sen. Susan Collins. For the first time in years, she lost the public relations battle to her critics not once but twice--even as those same critics became louder and their ranks grew.
First, Collins's vote against the confirmation of Education Secretary Besty DeVos, after she backed DeVos in committee, seemed to satisfy no one--the reversal was widely panned on the Maine left as a hypocrisy-masking bit of political theatre and it also drew criticism from Republican Maine Governor Paul LePage.
Collins's tone deaf, borderline-incoherent attempt today to explain the flipflop by appealing to principle seemed destined only to elicit more ire: If DeVos was sure to receive consideration from the full Senate regardless of the outcome of the committee vote, as Collins maintains, then why did believing that every senator should "have a voice" on the nomination require Collins to support DeVos's nomination in committee, as she also maintains?
(Politico's report that Collins decided to oppose DeVos only after Republican had gathered enough votes to assure her confirmation only added to the sense that Maine's senior senator was engaged, here, in political gamesmanship rather than principled behavior.)
Second, Collins sided with her GOP colleagues in ejecting Sen. Elizabeth Warren from the Senate floor for reading a letter Coretta Scott King had written in opposition to Attorney General Jeff Sessions's failed 1986 judicial nomination--a move widely perceived as reflecting a double standard, especially after Warren's male colleagues were permitted to read the very same letter on the Senate floor without incident.
The upshot of these two miscues seems to be, just maybe, that it's not as easy as it used to be for Collins to control the conversation. I can think of several reasons why that might be true:
--More Mainers are paying attention to Collins's acts than at any time in the last 10 years.
--In an ever-more-polarized political environment, it's harder than ever for a pol like Collins to use soothing rhetoric and symbolism to massage the perception around her unpopular votes.
--Fewer Mainers than ever are relying exclusively or even predominately on the mainstream outlets that have historically been all too willing to cheerlead for Collins--or serve as her megaphone--rather than functioning as something more akin to a referee. Instead, Mainers are hearing about Collins's acts from politically active friends on social media, where she's less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt and where her power doesn't win her automatic deference.
It will be interesting to see whether this is a brief blip--whether Collins is soon able to regain her footing and get back in control of her message--or whether this more contested state of affairs represents a new normal.
I suspect the answer will have to do, more than anything, with how Collins navigates through the coming months--in particular, whether and to what extent she helps advance the more extreme parts of the GOP's agenda.