Copyright © 1999 by the Boston Phoenix, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article was published in the debut issue of the Portland Phoenix.

The two faces of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins

Their moderate approaches to policy are matched by a keen sense of political calculation -- sometimes to the detriment of their constituents

By Dan Kennedy

IT'S SUNDAY AFTERNOON, September 12, in Augusta: a picture-perfect late-summer day. More than 15,000 bikers -- men, women, young, old, some looking like outlaws, some looking like accountants on a weekend getaway -- are gathered in Capitol Park, with Bulfinch's State House towering before them. And Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are doing what politicians do best: pandering.

The event is the 18th annual Toy Run. All day, bikers have been unstrapping teddy bears, Arthur dolls, and games from their Harleys and Yamahas and dropping them off at a collection station set up by the Salvation Army. The toys will be given to needy children at Christmas -- a theme underscored by the presence of a questionable-looking Santa Claus, who makes the rounds between cigar breaks at the VIP tent.

But Snowe and Collins, Maine's US senators, make sure they pay tribute to the bikers' most sacred cause: the right to ride without a helmet, consequences be damned. Each senator is wearing a United Bikers of Maine T-shirt, emblazoned with the motto LET THOSE WHO RIDE DECIDE. "It's like old home week for me, only louder," Snowe tells the throng. "We've been very proud of your fight for the right to exercise your individual freedom." Collins, who follows Snowe to the podium, keeps the focus on toys and kids. But just before stepping aside, she raises her voice and proclaims, "I agree -- let the riders decide!"

It's just one of those things a Maine politician has to do. And as it turns out, Collins and Snowe -- both of whom made the three-mile-plus run from the civic center to Capitol Park (as passengers, and wearing helmets) in a procession led by the state's Harley-riding governor, Angus King -- have some important work to do here. They're both Republicans, which is just fine with this predominantly conservative-libertarian crowd. But they're also women, and, worse, they're moderates -- hell, you might as well call them liberals -- who voted against removing Bill Clinton from office, for God's sake. The bikers have long appreciated Snowe's and Collins's support for their anti-helmet agenda, but the senators' impeachment votes rankle. It's an article of faith among many at Capitol Park that Clinton should have been sent packing back to Little Rock. "If you or I had done what he did, we'd have been kicked out on our ass," grouses one. And with some 5000 bikers belong to the United Bikers of Maine, this is a politically important group for Snowe and Collins to cultivate.

"I voted for both of them. I like both of them," says UBM president Joe Savoy, a powerfully built man with close-cropped hair, a serious goatee, and tattoos on his arms. "They've always supported us." Snowe and Collins aren't alone in supporting the bikers. And yet, just recently, the Maine legislature voted to require kids under 16 to wear helmets when riding bicycles. It's ironic, and more than a little perverse, that a state that takes its responsibilities to children seriously enough to pass such a law continues to allow kids to ride helmet-free on motorcycles.

The politicians have left the stage now, and the Red Ball Jets, a ZZ Top-style trio from Portland, have resumed blasting away. Their first song: the biker anthem "Born To Be Wild."

LIFE AS a moderate Republican in Maine can be precarious, and no one knows that better than Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. You've got the right wing of your own party ready to jump down your throat and the Democrats looking for any sign of weakness. Your base, if you can be said to have a base at all, is the approximately one-third of the electorate who are not enrolled in either party, and who are thus not as likely to be politically engaged as registered Republicans and Democrats.

Consider, for instance, the views of Keith Brown, a conservative Republican and lifelong Mainer who is the retired comptroller of Bath Iron Works. Brown is not a fan of either of Maine's senators, and never mind that they all belong to the same party. "They vote a majority of the time with the Democrats," Brown says. "They voted to acquit Clinton on both counts. They did not vote to overturn the veto on late-term abortions. They voted against the Republican tax cut. They're really Democrats. I don't know why they stay in the Republican Party. They might as well switch parties as far as I'm concerned." In the past, he's given money to Collins. Will he do so again? "Fat chance," he replies.

Or take Barbara Raths, the 24-year-old executive director of Maine's Democratic Party, who was just three years old when Snowe was first elected to Congress. "Both Senator Snowe and Senator Collins will say that they're moderate, but if you look at their voting records you'll see that they're entrenched deeply in Republican partisan politics," Raths says. "Collins and Snowe have demonstrated time and time again that they're no friends of the working people in Maine."

Yet if maneuvering between Democrats and conservative Republicans is hazardous, it can be politically rewarding, too. Indeed, Snowe, at 52, and Collins, at 46, are today the most formidable political figures in Maine, matched in popularity only by Governor Angus King. Snowe, elected to the Senate in 1994 after eight terms in the House, is the most successful Maine politician of the post-World War II era, winning nine elections for major office without ever suffering a defeat. Collins, who became a senator in 1996 after a failed campaign for governor in 1994, made an immediate splash upon her arrival in Washington because of her passion for campaign-finance reform -- a passion Snowe shares, though somewhat more quietly. Within months, Collins was the subject of a glowing profile in the New York Times Magazine titled, inevitably, "A Moderate's Moment."

Snowe and Collins argue that their brand of moderate Republicanism is what mainstream Mainers want. "I happen to think moderate Republicanism represents traditional Republicanism. I don't think I've changed; I think the Republican Party has changed over the past 20 years," says Snowe. Adds Collins: "To me, being moderate means that I'm willing to work with both sides to come up with a solution rather than just trying to score political points, and I think that's what the people of Maine want. The average Mainer is very independent in his or her thinking -- and not very ideological, but more pragmatic." Both women point to the early success of the presidential campaign of George W. Bush -- a conservative with a more moderate approach than Capitol Hill red-hots such as House majority whip Tom DeLay and Senate majority leader Trent Lott -- as evidence that moderation is back in vogue. (Last week Snowe's husband, former Maine governor John "Jock" McKernan, was named New England chairman of the Bush campaign.)

Moderate Republicanism, Maine-style, is similar to that espoused by fellow New England senators Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, and John Chafee, of Rhode Island. Snowe and Collins are pro-choice, even rebuking the religious right's attempts to ban a type of late-term procedure referred to by some opponents as "partial-birth abortion." They oppose discrimination against lesbians and gay men, though they have frustrated some gay-community activists by refusing to show much in the way of leadership, particularly in a 1998 referendum campaign. (The issue has now reared its ugly head again in Falmouth, where a petition drive is under way to overturn a local gay-rights ordinance.) They favor deep tax cuts, though not as deep as their party's leaders would like. They have a mixed record on the environment -- though, in fairness, there have been few crucial environmental battles in the Senate in recent years. And they take some stands that may gall liberals, but that reflect the realities of Maine life, such as their opposition to a motorcycle-helmet mandate and to most forms of gun control. The only major social issue they disagree on is the death penalty: Snowe favors it for certain types of heinous murders, whereas Collins thinks the risk of executing innocent people is too great.

"In Maine, if you've got the right wing angry at you, then you're going to win the general election with 60 percent of the vote. It's when the right wing agrees with you that you've got trouble," says Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin College government professor, Republican political consultant, and author of the entertaining An Insider's Guide to Maine Politics 1946-1996 (Madison Books, 1998). "I think they are both very savvy. They know where they stand. They don't trim their core values too often. They're both very good at paying attention to the groups that you know are watching you and care about your voting record and will give you the right time of day."

But if the Republican Party in Maine is mostly moderate, in Washington it's mostly conservative. Which raises a question about the effectiveness of New Englanders such as Snowe, Collins, Chafee, and Jeffords. In a sense, their unpredictability gives them more clout: they are often the subject of entreaties by majority-seeking conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats. Besides, unlike the 435-member House, where party discipline tends to be more highly prized, each of the senators is an independent power center. "Every senator has influence just by definition. That's the great thing about the Senate. There are only 100 of you, so they have to listen to you," says Tucker Carlson, who covers politics for the conservative Weekly Standard and for the more glitzy Talk magazine.

Sometimes the conservatives win the moderates over -- such as on the recent HMO patients' "bill of rights" vote; Snowe and Collins supported the Republican version, which Democrats have denounced as a sham. Sometimes the moderate Democrats win -- such as on the impeachment vote, when the refusal of the four New Englanders, plus Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, deprived pro-impeachment forces of a majority (see "Sense of the Senate," below).

In person, Snowe and Collins come across quite differently. Snowe, tall, thin, and articulate, with a pulled-back hairstyle she has not changed since her first campaign for Congress, has a slight slouch and a reserved but friendly manner. Collins, shorter and more compactly built, smiles frequently and speaks with great enthusiasm, as if she were about to jump up at any moment. Though she comes across as somewhat less cerebral than Snowe, she is possessed of a legendary work ethic, and has well-prepared answers for every question that comes at her. The impression is of two first-rate politicians at the top of their game.

UNUSUAL THOUGH it may be for a state to have two moderate Republican women senators (indeed, California is the only other state with two women senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats), it should be recalled that Maine was the home state of the original moderate Republican woman senator: Margaret Chase Smith, elected to the House in 1940 and to the Senate in 1948, where she served until 1972. Smith was a high-school-educated woman of modest origins whose independence was legendary. For a time in the 1950s, for instance, Smith's vocal criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy made her persona non grata at the Eisenhower White House, which didn't dare offend the Red-baiting McCarthy.

Then, too, women have traditionally done well in Maine politics. Sixteen women currently serve on the 35-member state senate, the second-highest proportion in the country, after Washington. Women also hold three of the top five leadership positions in the senate.

Nor are women the only moderates to win elective office in Maine. In fact, there is a long tradition of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats -- and even a few independents, such as Angus King and Jim Longley, elected as governor in the 1970s -- beating out their more ideologically oriented peers. This nonpartisanship extends to the presidential level, as Maine was Perot's best state in 1992 and 1996. During that first race, Perot actually came in second, behind Bill Clinton but ahead of George Bush.

Both Snowe and Collins are immediate heirs to the moderate-Republican tradition: Collins spent many years working for former senator Bill Cohen, and ran for his seat when he became secretary of defense. Snowe also worked briefly for Cohen early in her career, and her husband, Jock McKernan, is a former congressman and governor. The more successful Democrats, such as former senators Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell, have projected a moderate, thoughtful image, although Mitchell, in particular, held liberal views on many issues.

But though Snowe and Collins are heirs to a similar tradition and hold similar views, they have strikingly different backgrounds. Snowe, the first Greek-American woman elected to the Senate, had a tragic, tumultuous childhood and early adulthood. Her parents, immigrants from Sparta, both died before she was 10, and she was raised in Auburn (where she still lives) by her uncle, a barber, and her aunt, a textile-mill worker with five of her own children. Young Olympia was split from her only sibling, a brother, who was raised by other family members. A graduate of the University of Maine at Orono, she switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party when she married Peter Trafton Snowe, a Republican state legislator. Her career as an elected official began in tragedy: in 1973 she was chosen to succeed her husband after he was killed in an automobile accident.

"It's probably done a lot to shape my work and my view toward life," says Snowe. "I've lost a lot of close members of my family over time, and I've learned that it can happen to anybody. People may not suffer the same misfortune, but it can be misfortune of another kind, and it can have an impact. It gives me the ability to identify with people. It's made me empathetic, sympathetic, because unfortunately I've had enough tragedies to appreciate how things can change in one's life. It gives you a better understanding of what people have gone through."

Though Snowe's personal life has been difficult, her political career has been remarkably smooth -- from the legislature to Congress in 1978 and to the Senate in 1994, when George Mitchell retired. She beat Tom Andrews, a liberal firebrand who's now a congressman, in that general election. Conservative sniping aside, Snowe has never had a primary challenger -- and her Democratic opponents have rarely put up more than a token fight.

By contrast, Collins has had a much more placid personal life, but a more difficult time breaking through politically. She was raised in Caribou, on the Canadian border, where both of her parents served stints as mayor; her mother also served on the local school board, and her father was elected to the Maine Senate. "I grew up in a family where I learned the importance of giving back to your community, and that was really ingrained in me," says Collins, who's single and who now lives in Bangor. A graduate of St. Lawrence University, she worked for Bill Cohen for 12 years, and later for Jock McKernan, before striking out on her own in a particularly disastrous effort: running for governor in 1994, she won the Republican nomination only to finish a humiliating third in November, behind Angus King, the winner, and Democrat Joe Brennan.

Collins was given little chance when she announced her candidacy for the Senate in 1996. But lightning struck when her fellow Republicans destroyed each other: Robert Monks, a conservative businessman, tried to make an issue out of the fact that John Hathaway, a moderate state senator, had once been investigated by Alabama authorities on charges of having sex with a young baby sitter. Republican primary voters, revulsed both by Monks's gutter tactics and by the serious (though unproven) accusation against Hathaway, chose Collins instead. This time around, Collins beat her old nemesis Brennan.

When Collins was a high-school senior, she won a contest and got to fly to Washington -- her first time on an airplane -- to meet Senator Margaret Chase Smith. She recalls their two-hour meeting as a formative experience. "I remember being so proud that she was my senator," Collins recalls. "I left her office feeling that I could do anything. And that if this woman could make it from Skowhegan, Maine, to the United States Senate, and be such an influential senator, then any option was open to me as well."

IT WAS a decidedly non-moderate Republican, Barry Goldwater, who once observed that moderation is sometimes no virtue. And on a number of issues, the limits of Snowe's and Collins's moderation becomes apparent.

Perhaps the prime example is gay rights. Both make reassuring murmurs about their opposition to discrimination. But neither has been willing to show much in the way of leadership. Never was that more apparent than in 1998, when religious-right extremists, by a narrow majority in a low-turnout election held in the dead of winter, approved a referendum repealing a law that protected lesbians and gay men from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and credit.

Collins and Snowe had both spoken out against a 1995 referendum that would have voided all local gay-rights ordinances and forbidden the enactment of future ones. That measure had been narrowly defeated. "In that campaign, Olympia Snowe sent a letter in support, and Susan Collins's role got her an award from the MLGPA," the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance, recalls former Portland mayor Peter O'Donnell, who was active in fighting the 1995 referendum. But in 1998, when gay activists came knocking, Snowe and Collins were nowhere to be found.

"They took no active role, and they really stayed out of it," says Jonathan Lee, executive director and founder of the Maine Speakout Project, who recalls spending "a number of hours" talking with the senators' staff members in an effort to get them involved. "I was really trying to challenge them and say, 'If this is where your hearts are, then you've got to say so personally.' And they wouldn't do it." Patricia Peard, a Portland lawyer who was active in both referendum campaigns, is somewhat less critical, but her words nevertheless reflect obvious disappointment. "I would have hoped that they'd take a more direct stand on the issue, because they provide a great deal of leadership for the state, despite the fact that they hold a federal position," Peard says. "And I believe that both of them oppose discrimination. So I was personally sorry that they would not take a stronger position on the referendum."

In fact, Snowe and Collins both hold carefully calibrated, cautious positions on gay and lesbian rights that would be untenable if they truly believed in full equality. They say they didn't get involved in the 1998 campaign because it would have been inappropriate for federal officials to get involved in state referendums. (Snowe was a congresswoman in 1995; apparently her letter did not meet her standard for getting involved.) They both oppose gay and lesbian marriage; Snowe voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, a time when Collins was not an elected official. To their credit, they support adding a sexual-orientation category to Senator Ted Kennedy's hate-crimes bill. But though Snowe voted for the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a basic protection for lesbian and gay workers, Collins leans toward opposing it, saying, "I think that the gay-rights issue is better addressed at the state level. I think there would be a lot of resentment at having Washington impose this law." And Snowe, despite her support for ENDA, says, "I have always said that there's a strong difference of opinion in society whether sexual preference should be given civil-rights protection."

Then, too, Snowe's and Collins's attempts to appeal to conservatives without abandoning their moderate base sometimes make them appear more callow than courageous. This summer, for instance, they joined with moderate senators John Chafee and John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, in supporting a $500 billion tax cut, less than the Republican leadership's $792 billion giveaway but more than the Democrats' $290 billion proposal. But given analyses that show the $3 trillion surplus against which any tax cut must be weighed is based on draconian spending cuts that neither Congress nor the White House will likely make, the moderate compromise appears only slightly less irresponsible than the Republican plan. Snowe and Collins, though, defend the proposal as an affordable way to provide tax relief to middle-class families without abandoning the hard-won balanced budget. That's particularly ironic given that both support a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

Collins and Snowe also supported the Republican leadership's version of the HMO patients' bill of rights, which would improve access to medical facilities, allow women to stay in hospitals longer after breast-cancer surgery, and provide for an appeals process for those turned down for specific medical procedures. Democrats have denounced the plan, saying it doesn't even apply to most people with private health insurance -- including some 70 percent of Mainers.

"The Republican bill shouldn't even be called a patients' bill of rights," Representative Tom Allen (D-Portland) told the Portland Press Herald. "It makes a few minor changes to help. But it's so weak, it's not worthy of passage." Snowe responds that HMOs are more properly regulated at the state level. Collins, who helped draft the Republican bill, says the Democrats have mischaracterized it, and that the Democratic alternative -- by allowing for lawsuits against insurance companies -- would drive up costs and, thus, add to the 44 million Americans who are uninsured.

On the environment, Collins and Snowe are raging moderates, winning ratings in the area of 50 or 60 percent each year from the League of Conservation Voters.

The one area in which they have taken an archconservative stand has been gun control. Following the Columbine High School shootings, they finally voted for such modest measures as childproof safety locks and background checks at gun shows. But they have been rabidly pro-gun for most of their careers. Both, particularly Collins, have taken campaign money from the National Rifle Association ("less than one-half of one percent" of her campaign funds, sniffs Collins). At one time Collins called for the repeal of the ban on assault weapons, although she says she's changed her mind. Each has a zero percent rating from Handgun Control. Recently, Collins's ties to the gun industry caused a minor embarrassment for George W. Bush: Richard Dyke, Bush's chief Maine fundraiser and a Collins stalwart, resigned after it turned out that his company, Bushmaster Firearms, had manufactured an automatic rifle found in neo-Nazi murder suspect Buford Furrow's van.

Now, it's true that the Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine -- the "hook-and-bullet crowd," as it is referred to by derisive liberals -- is one of the most powerful political institutions in the state, and that few Maine politicians dare challenge SAM's pro-gun orthodoxy. It is also true, as Collins and Snowe are quick to point out, that Maine is near the top of the 50 states in per capita gun ownership and near the bottom in crime.

But senators, partially insulated from day-to-day political considerations because of their six-year terms, should ideally take a broader perspective on issues of national consequence. In the wake of rising concern over gun violence, Republican opposition to gun control is beginning to soften -- conservative Elizabeth Dole, for instance, has made it one of the themes of her presidential campaign. Certainly Snowe and Collins can find a way to address this changing reality without fatally damaging their political careers.

STILL, OLYMPIA Snowe and Susan Collins stand out as the kind of Republicans whom progressives can live with, if not enthusiastically endorse. At one time, it looked as though their brand of Republicanism might be the wave of the future. But then Bill Weld quit as governor of Massachusetts, and now New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman has decided not to run for the Senate. Then, too, John Chafee's retiring. Rather than being harbingers, Snowe and Collins may instead be the last of a breed.

Snowe and Collins, after all, are emphatically pro-choice; they favor campaign-finance reform; Collins opposes the death penalty; and they are not hostile to lesbians and gay men. If they're not exactly liberals, they're certainly a welcome alternative to the standard-issue Republican right-wingers so prevalent in Washington. Their moderate views also put them in an enviably strong position politically. Because even conservative Republicans like winners, it's unlikely that either of them -- Snowe in 2000, Collins in 2002 -- will face a strong primary challenge.

"I doubt that someone will step forth who would be viewed as a, quote, credible candidate in the sense of having all the resources necessary -- that is, having enough money, having the kind of public record that would indicate that they're ready to go to the US Senate, and being viewed as someone who isn't strictly a one-issue candidate or an extreme candidate," says Bates College government professor Douglas Hodgkin, a self-described conservative who is unhappy, in particular, with the senators' anti-impeachment votes.

The Democrats already have a candidate to run against Snowe: Mark Lawrence, the 41-year-old president of the state senate, who vows to go after Snowe on education, health care, and the Republican tax-cut proposal, which he charges would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest 10 percent. "I think when you get down to the real issues and the real distinctions, the point I hope to make is that we see Congress bogged down in partisanship and issues that are really not relevant to average Mainers' lives," says Lawrence, who lives in South Berwick.

But Lawrence obviously has an uphill fight. Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report, says he has Snowe in his "safe category." Although he thinks Lawrence is a "decent candidate," he says of Snowe: "These elections tend to be referenda on incumbents, and I just don't see a lot of anger toward incumbents out there. And I think Olympia is reaching that point where she's almost viewed as a state resource, a state treasure." Collins, he adds, is likely to find herself in the same strong position two years hence.

BACK AT Capitol Park, the speeches are drawing to a close. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins stand politely to one side while the United Bikers of Maine's legislator of the year, State Senator Peggy Pendleton, a Scarborough Democrat, recounts with relish her success at changing the phrase "ride safely" to "ride safe" in a recent piece of motorcycle legislation. Bad grammar is apparently as important to the bikers as their right to ride sans helmets.

Nationally, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins may be best known for their calm, reasoned approaches to impeachment and campaign-finance reform. But it's here, between sets by the Red Ball Jets, where you see their real political talent on display. Sure, they're pandering, but what the hell. It's not like anyone's forcing these bikers to ride without helmets.

These are not the senators' natural constituents -- not for Snowe, a "suede-on-suede yuppie woman," as Bowdoin professor Christian Potholm calls her, or for Collins, who's been accurately described as "schoolmarmish." But just by showing up and invoking the mantra, they have ensured that the bikers won't be their enemies. It's smart politics, and it's not bad public policy, either.

After all, it would be a lot harder to do battle with Trent Lott and Bill Clinton if they had to worry about Joe Savoy and his United Bikers, too.

Senatorial scorecard
Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have nearly identical positions on a wide range of issues. In 1998, for instance, they each received a 35 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, whereas the American Conservative Union scored it 40 percent Snowe, 36 percent Collins. Dig a little deeper, and both the virtues and the limits of moderate Republicanism become apparent.

The issue

The spin

The real world

TAXES. Snowe and Collins favor a $500 billion tax cut, splitting the difference between the Republicans' $792 billion plan and the Clinton administration's proposed $290 billion cut.

B-plus. A compromise position that looks responsible and measured: save Social Security and send some money home to hard-pressed families.

 

C-minus. Only slightly less irresponsible than the GOP giveaway. Snowe and Collins assume a $3 trillion surplus, which is fiction unless Congress sticks to unrealistically low spending limits.

 

CAMPAIGN-FINANCE REFORM. Collins made a name for herself early on by favoring tough campaign-finance-reform measures. Snowe has been a leader in pushing for limits on independent advocacy ads.

A. Maine's senators have emerged, with Arizona's John McCain, as their party's leading advocates for reform.

 

A-minus. Courageous, but neither has pushed for public financing, which would be the most meaningful reform of all.

 

GAY RIGHTS. Both oppose discrimination and support federal hate-crimes legislation. Neither supports gay marriage, and Snowe voted for the loathsome Defense of Marriage Act (Collins was not a senator at the time). Snowe voted for the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act; Collins doesn't support it, saying it's a state prerogative.

B-plus for Snowe; B for Collins. Having two Republican senators from a largely rural state explicitly oppose discrimination against lesbians and gay men is no small thing.

 

C for Snowe; C-minus for Collins. Both senators rejected requests to get publicly involved in the 1998 referendum to overturn civil-rights protections for gays and lesbians. The referendum narrowly passed.

 

ABORTION RIGHTS. Snowe and Collins are staunchly pro choice, refusing even to ban a late-term procedure referred to by the religious right as "partial-birth abortion."

A. By taking such a strong stand in favor of individual rights, they're in touch with their constituents and the country.

 

A-plus. They could have trimmed their sails on partial-birth abortion and thus curried favor with party leaders in DC and party conservatives back home. They didn't.

 

GUN CONTROL. Snowe and Collins voted for handgun safety locks last May -- following years of sucking up to the gun lobby and earning zero percent ratings from Handgun Control. At one time Collins even called for repeal of the ban on assault weapons, although she says she would not support repeal now.

C-minus. Maine has a high rate of gun ownership and little crime, making gun control both unpopular and less necessary than in large industrial states.

 

F. Senators set policy for the entire country, not just their home states. And some of Collins's and Snowe's votes -- such as those opposing gun registration -- smack more of NRA politics than Maine realities.

 

DEATH PENALTY. One of the very few areas of disagreement: Collins opposes the death penalty and Snowe supports it.

 

A for Collins; C for Snowe. Capital punishment is politically popular, and Collins deserves credit for taking an unpopular stand.

 

A for Collins; F for Snowe. Certainly some crimes are so heinous that they deserve the ultimate punishment. But what about all those Death Row inmates who've turned out to be innocent?

HEALTH CARE. Snowe and Collins voted in July for the GOP-backed HMO "bill of rights," which would give some patients greater access to medical facilities, allow women to stay in hospitals longer after breast-cancer surgery, and expand patients' ability to appeal payment decisions.

B-minus. The senators score some points for addressing an important issue that has a huge impact on their constituents. It's no secret, though, that Democrats proposed a wider-ranging bill with greater protections.

 

D-plus. An estimated 70 percent of Maine residents, most with private medical insurance, wouldn't even be covered by the GOP plan.

Sidebar: Sense of the Senate

It was an impressive balancing act. On the one hand, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins refused to sign on to independent counsel Ken Starr's sexual inquisition, and were two of just five Republicans to vote against both articles of impeachment. On the other hand, they still managed to enrage no less a Clinton toady than Boston Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant. Even if they hadn't planned it that way, their anti-Starr, anti-Clinton stance certainly resonated with a weary public. The bottom line was that Snowe and Collins were among the very few players to come out of the impeachment drama with their reputations enhanced.

The object of Oliphant's anger was a proposal unveiled by Collins, and supported by Snowe, to have a separate vote on the "findings of fact" against Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky-Paula Jones affair. The compromise would have allowed senators to go on record as agreeing with the House that Clinton had lied under oath and obstructed justice in Jones's sexual-harassment case. Then, in a separate vote, the Senate could have determined whether such offenses warranted Clinton's removal from office.

Oliphant, sensing the Collins-Snowe proposal as one of the few obstacles to total victory for his favorite president, blasted it on February 2 as "a means of helping the House and Senate avoid any serious responsibility bringing forward a weak or farcical impeachment case -- either in the short term politically or in the long term historically." What Oliphant really objected to, one suspects, was that a finding of fact would have stopped Clinton from smugly telling Dan Rather that he felt "vindicated" by the impeachment vote.

Despite positive signals from Senate majority leader Trent Lott, the finding-of-fact idea went nowhere. In the end, Snowe and Collins were joined by just three Republicans in opposing both impeachment articles: fellow New Englanders John Chafee, of Rhode Island, and Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, along with Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania. For weeks it had been clear that impeachment zealots wouldn't be able to muster the two-thirds vote needed to remove Clinton from office. But the "no" votes by these moderate Republicans were crucial to denying them the symbolic victory of a simple majority, which they had thought to be within their grasp.

Collins and Snowe remain convinced that a finding of fact against Clinton, followed by acquittal, would have been a better closing act to last year's tragicomic farce -- and Collins, in particular, now wishes she'd demanded a vote on her proposal.

"One of the reasons that I pushed the finding-of-fact idea so hard was that I didn't want the president to be able to say he had been vindicated, or for history to misinterpret the results of the impeachment vote," says Collins. "I felt that the president did commit obstruction of justice, but I didn't think that the circumstances of the case were sufficient to remove him from office, and to overturn a popular election. So it infuriates me when the president claims vindication and appears to still show no shame at all for his actions and for the turmoil that he plunged the country in."

Snowe agrees, saying that a finding of fact would have rendered the sort of "partial justice" that the case appeared to warrant -- and that it likely would have attracted the support of many Democrats as well. "I think it would have been helpful to this process, and I truly regret that we didn't move in that direction," Snowe says. "Then, at least, not only the present but future generations would understand that we found that the president was engaged in wrongdoing, but that it didn't constitute grounds for his removal."

Despite the failure of the finding-of-fact proposal, impeachment was good for Snowe and Collins. For one thing, their pox-on-Clinton-and-Starr stance resonated not just with their independent-minded constituents but with the public at large, which had been registering disgust with the whole mess for many months. For another, the senators' thoughtful, rhetoric-free speaking styles were a welcome contrast to the bombast coming out of their party's right wing -- as well as from the blessedly few knee-jerk Clinton defenders in the Democratic Party. Snowe, in particular, was a beacon of clarity, showing up on C-SPAN at the end of long trial sessions and speaking extemporaneously in intelligent, complete, nonpartisan sentences. As for Collins, she was hailed by numerous dispassionate observers, if not by Oliphant, for seeking a way out of the morass.

"They got quite a bit of mileage out of it," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "They looked thoughtful and independent and measured, and they were always treated like they were the 'reasonable' Republicans."