Thursday, October 23, 2014

Local Issues

In the first two debates of the race, Sen. Susan Collins has dodged or flat-out refused to answer several questions on the grounds that they cover state or local issues.

At times it's been uncomfortable to watch, even for a Collins critic: There's something wince-inducing about seeing a seasoned pol summon the mixture of presumption and smugness that it takes to reject out of hand a good faith inquiry from a neutral moderator. One wants to nudge Collins and whisper in her ear that she's making herself look standoffish and might want to tone it down.

But it's clearly a considered choice: Collins's implicit position is that she's running for federal office and so only national issues are germane.

Yet that's an awfully cramped view of what this--or any--Senate race is about, which is part of why the questions keep coming up. And it's frankly surprising that the senior senator has gotten away with this kind of dodge for as long as she has.

Because a US Senate election isn't just about a state sending off an emissary to legislate national issues. It's a statewide community's process for tapping one of its own as a representative in Washington.

By circumscribing a wide array of salient issues as beyond the purview of what she's willing to talk about, Collins sets herself apart from (and above?) that community and the political discussions it's having with itself. She paints herself as an outsider and a conundrum.

Mainers accepted those terms in her last election. But for whatever reason, it's proving more awkward this time around.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

First Debate

Video here.

Some interesting and surprisingly illuminating clashes on veterans issues, gay marriage, the minimum wage and equal pay. Bellows wins the first half handily while the second half is pretty much a draw.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Video Shows Allen Burning Flag" [sic]

From the archive: Al Diamon's February 2008 "Media Mutt" column from Downeast magazine:

If a newspaper had information that indicated a member of Congress had taken part in burning the U.S. flag to protest the war in Iraq, you'd think that would be big news. Front page. Above the fold. Giant headline.

But that's not the way things are done at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville. Somebody there apparently thought the paper had just such a story, but that it wasn't all that big a deal.

On Feb. 28, the Sentinel ran a piece by Blethen Maine Newspapers' Washington correspondent Jonathan Kaplan about a new fundraising video put out by Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, in which she attacks her Democratic rival in the November election, U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, for accepting large campaign donations through the liberal group

The third paragraph of Kaplan's story, "Collins camp launches video attacking Allen," begins with this sentence: "The video includes a grainy image of Allen and shots of Iraq war protesters burning American flags and holding a sign urging soldiers to kill their officers."

I doubt an average reader would think that meant Allen had taken part in a flag burning, nor does the actual video portray such an action. But a copy editor at the Sentinel managed to come up with that interpretation. He or she slapped a sub-headline on the piece that read, "Video shows Allen burning flag."

Then, that editor buried this scoop on the back page of the local section.

Asked about this curious mix of creating sensational (although false) news and then burying it, Sentinel editor Eric Conrad, reached by phone, said, "That sub-head was bad, and we'll correct it."

He refused further comment by hanging up. Which was probably the wisest thing anybody connected with this mess has done.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Up to the Edge

Last Wednesday, Portland Press Herald made a subtle post-publication revision to an opinion column that it had published the previous day. And while the change was pretty minor--involving only a few words--it speaks volumes about the peculiar, corrosive dynamics of the US Senate race in Maine.

Backing up for a moment: On September 27, PPH ran a piece by lefty activist and columnist Mike Tipping detailing Sen. Susan Collins's role in the lead-up to last year's federal government shutdown, puncturing the Collins campaign's carefully crafted narrative with vote citations, published quotes and a reference to a Politico article.

Along the way, he noted that the senior senator's failed "compromise plan" to end the shutdown was built around a tax cut for medical device manufacturers, adding:

Why did Collins target this particular provision? It's hard to say, but it may have something to do with the fact that the pharmaceutical and medical device industry has given heavily to Collins’ re-election campaign. Four months before she proposed the repeal, their top lobbyists had even hosted a high-dollar fundraising luncheon on her behalf.
Three days later, PPH ran a response from the Collins campaign which led with the claim that:
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows and her partisan left-wing allies...have resorted to false attack ads, misleading letters to the editor and, sadly, outright lies.

The most recent example is Mike Tipping’s Sept. 27 column.

But instead of taking on any of those supposed lies--or tackling the claims Tipping actually made--Collins's proxy took the conversation in a different direction, focusing on praise from Collins's colleagues that was entirely beside the point.

And after strongly implying that Collins's plan--and the medical device tax that was its centerpiece--passed into law (it did not), the senior senator's surrogate noted that her, "framework did include a repeal of the medical device tax, as Mr. Tipping pointed out while alleging some sort of illegal campaign kickback."

That summarization of Tipping's claims--that he was suggesting, let alone alleging, illegality--strikes me as just plain false. And it struck Tipping the same way. He was clearly speculating rather than concluding. And he was pointing to the tangled relationship between money and power inside the beltway rather than suggesting an explicit quid pro quo.

But instead of recapping this discussion neutrally--or even reframing it in a negative light--the Collins campaign had simply replaced the substance of his comment with a more nefarious conclusion that was easier to bat down.

And they had done so, remember, in the context of a piece attacking the credibility of Collins's foes and purporting to respond to "outright lies."

It's not unusual for political campaigns to caricature the arguments of their opponents or stretch the bounds of truth in service of political attacks. But taking shots at the credibility of your critics based on arguments they haven't actually made requires a certain amount of moxie. And it's the kind of cynical tactic that cries out for media exposure: Readers and voters need to understand that the person shouting "liar" may in fact be the one who's not telling the truth.

But what happened next is what's most illuminating.

Faced with a swirl of responsibilities to his readers, his writers and the integrity of the paper, Press Herald Opinion Editor Greg Kesich went back into the piece to remove the false claim about Tipping, essentially conceding that the Collins camp's credibility attack itself didn't stand up to scrutiny.

But he did so in the quietest way possible, appending a small "clarification" to the bottom of the article that omits any suggestion that the Collins camp had mischaracterized Tipping's words in the first place--even though the question of who's telling the truth was central to the piece and Kesich's intervention was a key data point in that debate.

In a phone interview, Kesich explained the step, telling me that the word "illegal" was "too strong" and noting that the Collins camp, "took the most extreme version" of what Tipping had written.

At the same time, he characterized the change as essentially small potatoes and really no big deal.

When I pressed him, pointing out that his decision to go back in to revise the piece after publication suggested that he must have been pretty uncomfortable with the language, he agreed, but noted that all the same, the Collins camp's claim was "pretty close to the edge."

And there you have the Collins campaign strategy in a nutshell: To make false claims about its opponents that are close enough to the edge so as not to draw the attention or raise the ire of the somnambulant, pliant Maine press.

So far, so good.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Quote of the Day

Sen. Susan Collins on children caught entering the United States from Central America:

"It was a surprise to me that they were being taught American customs, American traditions ... the kind that I would expect to see in a naturalization process," said Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who led the late-July trip from Washington of a handful of senators.

"I thought that was troubling because I think it raises their expectations that they will be allowed to stay in this country," she said.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

DFA Ad Trips up Collins Camp

With the campaign of Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows circulating a poll that shows their candidate making a big dent in the lead of Sen. Susan Collins--the senior senator's advantage is down to 24% from 55% in June--Democracy For America (DFA) jumped into the fray on Wednesday with a $300,000 ad buy attacking Collins and supporting Bellows:

Collins reelection campaign spokesman Lance Dutson immediately took to Twitter to blast the above ad:

But then something funny happened: Dutson couldn't back up his rather bold charge. He couldn't come close.

Dutson began his dissection of the ad by attributing to it the claim that "Collins voted against Dodd-Frank."

The ad actually says that Collins voted "against a crackdown on Wall Street after the financial crisis" and references an April 26, 2010 vote to make its case.

This was indeed a vote on the Dodd-Frank financial reform package--but not the final, successful vote that made the bill into law. Rather, it was an earlier vote in which Collins lined up with Republicans to block the package. I'd forgotten that Collins had been on both sides of the Senate's financial reform bill, but clearly DFA didn't. (She was memorably quizzed about the filibuster by--of all people--Matt Lauer.)

In short, while it's indisputably true that Maine's three-term senator ultimately came around to backing Dodd-Frank, it's just as indisputable that Collins "voted against a crackdown" as the ad claims.

Spotlighting that fact might be considered uncharitable--after having voted against the bill, in the end Collins voted for it. In the context of a 60-second critique, the assertion could even (arguably) be called disingenuous. But all the caveats in the world don't change the fact that it's literally and verifiably true.

Meanwhile, Dutson's second attempt at exposing the ad's "falsehoods" came to even less:

As proof, Dutson cited Collins's vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act when it passed back in 2009. But as I tried to get across to him on Twitter, you can't refute the idea that someone is against doing "more" about something by citing a law she helped pass long ago: The whole point of using the word "more" is to signal a move beyond the present-tense status quo. (Try promising your kid more ice cream and then, when she asks for it, talking about the ice cream you bought her six weeks ago.)

This seems so basic as to be almost beyond explanation. But instead of trying again or recalibrating--instead of dialing back the charge that the ad is "riddled with falsehoods" Dutson simply dug in, citing "major factual errors".

Whether he had in mind other, unspecified errors or the errors he'd tried and failed to substantiate isn't clear.

Something tells me that further clarification won't be forthcoming.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Quote of the Day

Washington Times:

"Prior to the Tea Party movement, moderate members such as Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, were only known back home. Today, they are household names and their telephone lines can be flooded at a moment’s notice with calls from activists--a move that can directly affect votes. It is akin to winning the war without firing a single shot, or spending a single dollar in those districts during an election year."

Friday, August 15, 2014

Quote of the Day

Sen. Susan Collins in a written statement:

"Increased foreign competition continues to present serious economic difficulties for the paper industry, which is why it’s absolutely essential that trade agreements be fair to American workers and open new markets for American products."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Under the Radar

Even as Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows makes herself available for extended unscripted interactions with voters and the press during her much-publicized walk across Maine, incumbent Sen. Susan Collins has removed the "Events" tab from her campaign website.

Compare the versions here and here.

This is actually part of a steady erosion of the utility of the Collins campaign site over the years: As technology has expanded the scope of what's possible, the Collins campaign has slowly reduced the amount of useful information on offer--from a 2002 site that provided issue positions and a biography through a 2008 version that at least feigned to care about policy to the current incarnation, virtually devoid of issue substance.

The site's superficiality underscores the content-free nature of the Collins political persona and the opacity of her views on many of the pressing issues of the day; the elimination of the "Events" tab in particular is a reminder of the senior senator's lack of transparency with Maine voters--not just during election season but year in, year out.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Collins and Carbon: Anybody's Guess

As expected, League of Conservation Voters (LCV) endorsed Sen. Susan Collins last week despite her middling lifetime rating of 67% on LCV's own scorecard.

By way of comparison: Collins's 69% rating for 2013 put her 34th out of the 35 Senate and House members who represented New England during that year.

(I've written about LCV's peculiar fondness for Collins more than a few times in the past.)

The text of the endorsement is worth reading, if only because it includes a claim that is verifiably--and obviously--false:

"[Collins] is always fighting for the people of Maine by supporting commonsense policies that promote the state's outdoor heritage and help protect our air, water and public health."

To be sure, Collins has taken more than a few environmentally-friendly votes over the years. But since when does 67% get rounded up to "always"?

In short, rather than candidly explain the bargain the group has struck by standing with a pol who supported what LCV itself called the ""most anti-environment bill signed into law in recent memory", the organization has instead sidestepped the ickiness of the situation by simply lying about Collins's record.

What's more, while the endorsement claims that "Collins is committed to finding bipartisan solutions that will safeguard our environment and combat climate change," the senior senators words and actions tell a much more complicated story.

Specifically, after backing climate legislation back in the mid-2000s when it had no chance of passing, Collins balked once President Obama took office--lamely blaming the economy--and ultimately refused to get behind the bill with the best chance of passing, even as she voted to block the EPA from regulating emissions.

She also pushed an amendment that would have stalled the tightening of clean air standards--a move that National Resouces Defense Council says would have resulted in over 17,000 avoidable heart attacks.

And here she is flogging a Koch-friendly, environmentally-reckless "regulatory time-out" in the Republican weekly address:

If safeguarding the environment is high on the list of concerns of the pol speaking above, there's no evidence of it.

Yes, Collins's history when it comes to the environment isn't all bad news. But it's the very murkiness of her record and rhetoric that makes LCV's claim to know what she's "committed to" laughable.

To that point: A week after LCV announced its support, Collins remains the only member of the Maine delegation not to have staked out a position on whether the EPA's new draft carbon regulations should be welcomed or overturned.

Draw your own conclusions.

ALSO: Expect light tweeting--and even lighter blogging--from Collins Watch for the month of July. We'll see you in August.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

HRC for Collins. Again.

In a move that's unsurprising but nonetheless troubling, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) endorsed Sen. Susan Collins in her bid for a fourth term earlier today.

Collins has been a trailblazer on gay rights issues among congressional Republicans. But her record pales in comparison to those of many non-Republican actors on the political stage, including Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows, who was a leader in the 2012 Maine marriage referendum fight and a stalwart supporter of the LGBT community during her years at the ACLU of Maine.

HRC made waves during the 2008 campaign when it backed Collins over a Democratic challenger who had a better record on LGBT issues according to HRC's own scorecard.

At the time, HRC defended the move on "bipartisanship" grounds in an e-mail to this blog:

HRC is a bipartisan organization. This is not an empty principle or a meaningless nod to an ideal we do not follow. We are bipartisan because equality knows no party, and because we simply cannot achieve justice for the entire GLBT community by conceding that only Democrats should care about us.

Of course, as I noted in the same post, "the onus should be on Republicans to sign onto HRC's agenda--rather than on HRC to bend its standards to accommodate members of the GOP."

But this time around, HRC or Collins--or both--took that advice to heart. Because just a few hours after the endorsement hit, news arrived that Collins now supports same-sex marriage, albeit in a limited, qualified sense:

"A number of states, including my home state of Maine, have now legalized same-sex marriage, and I agree with that decision."


[Collins spokesman Lance Dutson] said the senator had been silent on the issue previously because she believes it is the voters of each state--not U.S. senators--who should make the decision on marriage equality.

"What she has consistently said is she doesn't want to get involved in state-level referendum issues. She's a U.S. senator, and she stays within the purview of her office," Dutson said. "But when asked [today] about her personal stance on this issue, she said she supports it."

So it's a personal view: Collins isn't supporting a federal marriage right; or updating her dodge about the impact of the Defense of Marriage Act; or even divulging how she voted in the 2012 state referendum.

She's just saying she's cool with same-sex Marriage within the borders of Maine (something that's already on the books) from this day forward.

Not exactly crusading for the cause. But good enough for HRC apparently.

Still, the story is cringeworthy for a reason having nothing to do with the half-heartedness of the message or the fecklessness of HRC. Namely: Why did Collins decide to go out of her way to make her about-face on marriage appear to be a quid pro quo?

I can't think of a precedent for the kind of juxtaposition we saw today, and it's not hard to understand why: When you announce a change of heart on a profound issue of conscience just a few hours after receiving an endorsement from an organization that focuses on the issue in question, it can't help but read as a transactional, even mercenary move.

Surely, there's got to be some plausible reason for why Maine's senior senator chose to time things this way. But I can't seem to come up with any compelling theories.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Quote of the Day

Paul Krugman tells an inconvenient truth:

Given the state of U.S. politics today, climate action is entirely dependent on Democrats, With a Democrat in the White House, we got some movement through executive action; if Democrats eventually regain the House, there could be more. If [former Treasury Secretary Hank] Paulson believes that he can support Republicans while still pushing for climate action, he's just delusional.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Poll: Collins +55% (!)

Hard to reconcile the new Press Herald numbers with the previous Collins-Bellows poll: With no major news developments, did Maine's senior senator really gain 19 points on her Democratic challenger in eight weeks?

It seems unlikely, but it's a mostly academic question. Sen. Susan Collins is way out in front. It would take something dramatic to make this race competitive.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Quote of the Day

Sen. Susan Collins:

"The question is whether air strikes can be targeted enough that they don't kill innocent people."