Nearly four years ago, against the wishes of the majority of her constituents, Sen. Susan Collins cast a critical vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
In a lengthy speech explaining her decision, the Republican from Maine brushed off concerns that Kavanaugh would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Even among Supreme Court nominees, Collins said, Kavanaugh’s respect for precedent was exceptionally solid.
“In his testimony, he noted repeatedly that Roe had been upheld by Planned Parenthood v. Casey, describing it as a precedent,” she said. “When I asked him, ‘Would it be sufficient to overturn a long-established precedent if five current justices believed that it was wrongly decided?’ he emphatically said, ‘No.’ ”
Of course, the leaked draft of Justice Sam Alito’s majority Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe bears out what political observers on both the left and right have known for years: Kavanaugh was lying through his teeth.
When Donald Trump nominated him to the court, Kavanaugh already had a record of flouting precedent. (He had also written, as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court, that the government’s interest in “favoring fetal life” justified the Trump administration’s efforts to prevent an undocumented minor from terminating her pregnancy.) Collins supported him anyway. She had the same guileless faith—or performance of guileless faith—in Neil Gorsuch, whom she voted to confirm in 2017. When asked the following year whether Gorsuch, a demonstrably precedent-overruling justice, would try to overturn Roe, Collins objected. “He pointed out to me that he is a co-author of a whole book on precedent,” she said.
So, if we take her at her word, Collins was the only person in the world who was surprised to learn on Monday that Kavanaugh and Gorsuch voted to overturn Roe. “If this leaked draft opinion is the final decision and this reporting is accurate, it would be completely inconsistent with what Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh said in their hearings and in our meetings in my office,” she said on Tuesday.
Collins is no dummy. It seems unlikely that the veteran politician was duped by some slick misdirection from two consecutive Supreme Court nominees. The reality of her situation, now, is clear: She never much cared about Roe to begin with.
It’s classic her: Collins’ record in the Senate is speckled with ostensibly bold moves that, upon closer examination, function more like feints. She helped save the Affordable Care Act by casting a decisive vote against the Republican Party’s attempted repeal, then turned around and voted to repeal the individual mandate. She voted against Betsy DeVos for Trump’s secretary of education—but only after voting to greenlight the nomination in committee and send it to a full vote. She made a strong defense of Planned Parenthood when she voted against the ACA repeal, then defamed Planned Parenthood in her support of Kavanaugh, erroneously accusing the group of mounting knee-jerk, partisan campaigns against previous justices.
She has taken some seemingly principled steps to protect the country from the worst of her own party, but only once her ineffectuality was guaranteed. Her vote to convict Trump after his second impeachment trial came with the knowledge that the Senate would not meet the two-thirds threshold required to convict. Ditto the bill she introduced in February with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, which would codify the protections of Roe in U.S. law. The Senate does not have a filibuster-proof supermajority in favor of abortion rights, so the bill is going nowhere. Collins knows that—and she only proposed the bill in response to a more progressive, comprehensive abortion rights bill introduced by Democrats.
In other words, Collins is much more invested in her own thinly sourced image as a plainspoken, even-handed political moderate than she is in any particular policy outcome. Her reasons for this, I imagine, are both personal and political: She likes to think of herself as an independent thinker who stands apart from her peers, and she must studiously calibrate her politics to the peculiar wavelength of the voting public in Maine.
As her party has moved further right and endorsed increasingly authoritarian politics, Collins’ veneer of contemplative moderation has approached the absurd. She publicly announced that she would not vote for Trump in 2016, writing that he “does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country.” Four years later, when Trump ran for reelection, she refused to say whether or not she’d vote to keep him in office. What changed? Had he proved her wrong, and shown himself to be an inclusive, healing leader? Or was it simply that Collins herself was up for reelection in 2020, and wary of alienating members of her own party?
And who can forget her famous claim, stretching all reasonable bounds of credulity, that she believed Trump had learned a “pretty big lesson” from the impeachment process in 2020—mere months before he would attempt to overturn an election and incite a violent coup—such that there was no need to convict him?
This has long been the Collins M.O.: Purport to expect the best from fellow conservatives who have already shown their worst, then act bemused and disappointed when they behave exactly as they’ve demonstrated they would. Collins’ definition of political moderation is participating in the dismantling of democratic norms and the infrastructure of human rights, then performing mild displeasure when they proceed to fall apart.
For years, this mismatch of action and rhetoric has allowed Collins to have it both ways: to keep her party in power—and the GOP money flowing her way—while keeping her hands relatively clean enough to maintain the support from independents that Maine’s elected officials require.
But what does it say about her position on abortion? Collins appears to be somebody who believes abortion should be legal and would prefer Roe remain intact, but doesn’t think it important enough to warrant the risk of—well, anything. Not the support of her GOP allies, not the possibility of a primary challenger from the right, and certainly not her seat in the Senate. To Collins, the dissolution of the precedent that has saved countless lives and allowed generations of women to pursue lives, careers, and parenthood on their own terms was never going to be an urgent human rights crisis, a worst-case scenario worth setting aside one’s personal interests to avoid. It will be, for her, a fleeting disappointment. Or at least the affectation of one.
The case of Susan Collins should be a warning for political activists in thrall to fair-weather allies. It is now clearer than ever that Collins’ putative support for abortion rights did a lot more for her than she ever did for it. (Planned Parenthood should soak in its regret for the years it spent promoting Collins, sometimes at the expense of Democratic challengers.) The imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade proves that there is no middle ground between authoritarian, patriarchal, white-supremacist rule and the alternative. If a supporter of abortion rights will not stick her neck out in the final, desperate hour, she never supported abortion rights at all.
For more Roe v. Wade coverage, listen to Slate legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick discuss the Supreme Court leak on What Next.