After Sen. Susan Collins announced on the Senate floor Friday that she would cast her deciding vote to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) rose to liken her to another Republican from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, “the first member of the United States Senate to take on Joseph McCarthy . . . this demagogue and the tactics that he employed.”

If the Republican leader was too subtle, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), speaking next, left no doubt: “This is as close to McCarthyism as I hope we get in my lifetime,” Graham said of the Democrats, whom he accused of “mob rule.”

It was an insult to the memory of Margaret Chase Smith, whose heroic and patriotic 1950 speech, a “Declaration of Conscience,” was a lonely denunciation of the demagogue who dominated her Republican Party. Collins’s speech, ignoring the new demagoguery that has overtaken her party while criticizing the other side, was the very opposite. Hers was a Declaration of Convenience, a Declaration of Capitulation.

Post contributor Randall D. Eliason walks through the perjury claims around Brett M. Kavanaugh's Senate testimony, from the blackout denials to "boofing." (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

“We are Republicans. But we are Americans first,” Smith said 68 years ago. “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

Collins offered a nuanced defense of Kavanaugh on the sexual assault allegations: She could not conclude that Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations were false, but she didn’t see enough evidence to block Kavanaugh. Fine. Reasonable people can disagree. But she entirely blamed Democrats and liberal interest groups, offering not a peep about the vile disparagement of accusers offered by President Trump (which Collins previously criticized) and her Republican colleagues who are now horsemen of calumny.

Many of the words Smith uttered long ago apply now to the current administration. “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who . . . ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism,” she said, including the right to criticize and to protest. Though lamenting the “ineffective Democratic administration” of Harry S. Truman, she said replacing it with a dishonest Republican one “might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, [but] it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people.”

Now we have a president who denounces protesters and critics as unpatriotic, who calls a free press the “enemy of the American people,” who routinely assaults the truth and the rule of law.

“How stunningly similar,” writes journalist Marvin Kalb (at 88, an eyewitness to the McCarthy era) in his new book “Enemy of the People.” “Spineless Republicans cowering before McCarthy in the early 1950s and today’s senior Republican leadership turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated accusations.”

Collins, in her Smith moment, criticized only the other party, liberal groups and an unnamed senator — apparently Bob Casey (D-Pa.) — who opposed Kavanaugh before he was named.

She offered wishful thoughts that “centrist” Kavanaugh won’t outlaw abortion, won’t champion executive power and “will work to lessen the divisions in the Supreme Court.” Unlikely. Kavanaugh campaigned for confirmation via right-wing outlets: a Fox News interview and a Wall Street Journal op-ed. He testified about Democrats’ “smears” and “political hit” seeking “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” He threatened that “what goes around comes around.”

Collins offered no complaint about that, nor about Trump’s mockery of Ford at a political rally, nor Trump’s tweet saying the assault couldn’t have been “as bad as she says” because she didn’t call the police, nor his belittling Al Franken for resigning under misconduct allegations “like a wet rag.” (Collins called for Democrat Franken to resign without an investigation.)

Collins made no mention of McConnell ignoring the Merrick Garland nomination for nearly a year, deploying the “nuclear option” to deny minority influence over Supreme Court confirmations and saying he would “plow right through” despite the Ford allegations, which he called “a good smear” with a “complete lack of evidence.”

She praised Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who on his way to her speech had said Republican women don’t want to serve on his committee because “it’s a lot of work” (aides pushed him to recant), and who earlier was joined by Trump in alleging that George Soros paid the sexual assault survivors who protested.

She properly lamented the “great disunity,” “extreme ill will” and loss of “common values.” Certainly, there is much to regret about the confirmation process, and the late emergence of assault allegations (although Democrats’ reluctance to introduce an anonymous allegation and their insistence on an investigation was the opposite of McCarthyism). But how can Collins talk about “ill will” while ignoring its primary author?

To be worthy of Margaret Chase Smith, Collins would have to take a personal risk and use her pulpit and her vote to denounce the misogynist who leads her party and her colleagues who enable him. Without that, her message is a Declaration of Cowardice.

Twitter: @Milbank

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