Susan Collins, a Republican senator known for her bipartisan efforts in Congress, came to Bowdoin October 25, 2016, for a discussion of current issues. In the hour-long event, Collins answered questions from members of a full audience in Pickard Theater, explaining her lack of support for both her party’s presidential nominee and for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. She also spoke about climate change, the future of the Republican Party, political polarization, the Middle East, and other topics.
The evening began with two questions from Bowdoin College President Clayton Rose, who first asked why she announced in August that she will not be supporting any of the four presidential candidates this year, including Donald Trump.
“I was worried he might make a perilous world even more dangerous,” Collins said at one point, due to what she says is Trump’s lack of knowledge about foreign policy and defense and his impulsive nature.
Later in the evening, a student pressed her (49:29) on why, if she is denouncing Trump, she is not planning to vote for Hillary Clinton. Collins answered that she considers Clinton to be a flawed candidate because of her decision to use a private email server when she was secretary of state, and for “misrepresenting” the FBI director’s findings of her actions. Collins also criticized Clinton for failing to cleanly separate her role as secretary of state with the Clinton Foundation, a philanthropic organization run by her family.
President Rose then asked about the distrust the public holds for public institutions in Washington, DC, and he wondered what we should be doing to encourage disaffected young people to find their way to a life in politics.
“Liberal arts colleges are well suited to lead the way in this renewal of American community. A sense that we care for one another, a sense of tolerance, empathy, personal responsibility, individual freedom—those are core American values.”
—US Sen. Susan Collins
Collins started off by humorously acknowledging the dismal popularity of Congress, citing a survey that found members of Congress are less popular than either cockroaches and colonoscopies. After the laughter died down, she said she’s observed that the suspicion of government stems from “distrust of any institution that is perceived as powerful and out of touch.”
She blames the disconnect on poorly negotiated trade agreements that have put people out of work and on the widespread stagnation of wages. She added, “I also think that members of Congress have created that sense of disconnect, in some cases, by talking down the institution to which they belong.”
Additionally, Collins noted that hyper-partisanship, and the 24/7 news outlets that reinforce what people already think, are feeding into the public’s disillusionment with their elected representatives.
Later in the evening, Collins returned to the problem of political polarization in our country. She criticized the trend of “residential sorting,” where people live in communities with neighbors who are similar to them economically, politically, and racially.
“We need to get to know people who aren’t just like us,” she said. “We need to rediscover traditional American values that made our country great, and those values to me are a sense of community, and caring about one another, tolerance, empathy.” She called for a “renewal within our own communities,” in which we get to know people who don’t think or look like us and that we learn how to listen to alternative ideas.
One of the best places to do this, she continued, is on college campuses. “Liberal arts colleges are well suited to lead the way in this renewal of American community. A sense that we care for one another, a sense of tolerance, empathy, personal responsibility, individual freedom—those are core American values.”
Collins took a climate change question from Bruce Kohorn, Bowdoin’s Linnean Professor of Biology and Biochemistry and Director of the Biochemistry Program (37:00). She said she believes humans are causing climate change and that governmental action will be needed to solve the problem. “I have voted repeatedly to do away with tax breaks that the large oil companies get and I have supported over and over again the ability of the EPA to advance greenhouse gas emissions policy—the Clean Power Act, for example.” But she added that helping coal miners in the states impacted by environmental policies is also important.
Collins answered a question from a student (46:23) about a recent $1.15 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia. He asked why the US continues to arm Middle East states with weapons that in some cases lead to civilian casualties.
A senior posed a question (25:57) about the future of the Republican party and how it might become more inclusive. Collins pointed out that the Republican candidates running in the primaries represented a diverse America, and she suggested that having primary elections rather than caucuses could encourage more moderate voters than just attracting ideologically extreme ones that typically vote in the primary season. “I think that the gerrymandering that both parties engage in is part of the problem,” she added.
Rose then asked whether the Republican Party would break in the direction of the large group supporting Trump or break in the direction of the party platform put together in the aftermath of the 2012 election. This plan sought a broader and more diverse constituency.
“I think that the party is going to adopt more of the recommendations that occurred four years ago in the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss,” she said. “[That analysis] talks about the need to be a more inclusive party. I think that is the direction the Republicans will go in, because otherwise we’re not going to win elections. Just for practical reasons, as well as policy and philosophical reasons.”