Def Jef: There's nothing Independent About Jeffords' Jump

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The decision of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords to leave the Republican party?and thereby throw control of the Senate to Democrats?launched a whole week in which everything anyone said led one to shout, "Oh, my foot!" or words to that effect. Jeffords switched parties, according to Fox News, because he "was tired of feeling uneasy for voting his conscience." (Oh, baloney!) Vermont, according to The New York Times, "has long been known for its spirit of independence and moderation." (Oh, hogwash!) And Jeffords, according to practically everyone, had come to his decision after "struggling with his conscience." (Oh, reach over and pass me that barf bag, will ya?)

Jeffords had real good reasons to leave the GOP, which we'll get to below. But columnist Matt Miller was the first to notice the outright irrationality of his stated reasons. The straw that broke Jeffords' back, or so Jeffords claimed, was the Bush tax-and-budget plan. Jeffords wanted to include $300 billion of extra education funding in the 10-year plan, and Republican negotiators had no intention of letting him. Jeffords made noises about leaving the party. Republicans still balked. So Jeffords, facing projections that rendered his education plans unthinkable until 2010 at the earliest, left the party. Fine. But then he turned around and?in an act that would be called hypocrisy if anyone but the Conscience of the Senate committed it?voted for the budget itself! "We are dealing," Miller correctly lamented, "with a deeply incoherent rebel. This would be a private matter for Jeffords to sort out with his therapist were not his cowardice in this moment of 'courage' so consequential for the country."

Except for Miller's the analyses soared out in widening spirals of malarkey. The media swallowed whole Jeffords' attempt to strike the pose Ronald Reagan did with the Democrats: I didn't leave the party, the party left me. As Vermont's Rutland Herald put it, "Over the years Jeffords has watched his party drift further and further to the right." Now it's certainly true that the Republican Party is less hospitable to Northeastern liberal Republicanism than it was in, say, 1958, but Jeffords was elected in 1988 (with George Bush) and reelected in 1994 (with Newt Gingrich). Presidential aide Karen Hughes was right to note that "Senator Jeffords stayed in the Republican Party when some of its leaders were saying we should abolish the Department of Education."

Jeffords switched because he wanted?in Midge Decter's memorable phrase?to join the side he was on. He was one of five Republican senators who voted to acquit Clinton, has been a staunch supporter not just of abortion but of partial-birth abortion and stood with Vermont's gay-rights groups in the controversy over "civil unions"?the watered-down gay-marriage measure that has roiled the state's politics over the last two years. This last is indispensable to understanding why Jeffords jumped.

Vermont is not, pace the cliche-mongers on television, a state with a "strong independent streak." In fact, as anyone who has visited the place can tell you, it's a state with an unusually weak independent streak. All that's happened is that the laconic, dairy-farming Calvin Coolidge conformists of mid-century have been joined by the countercultural limousine-liberal Ben & Jerry's conformists of 1968 and after. For years the two sides were in rough parity. Now the left has the upper hand.

The civil-union controversy made that plain. It brought to Vermont the type of partisan polarization that has characterized national politics since Ronald Reagan's election. Once Vermont's legislature passed its gay-rights act, state Republicans were energized?by the national Republican Party. Out of the woodwork came Vermont's true believers, the prayer-in-school/gun-rights people. Most Vermonters had not realized they were there. And it was suddenly no longer possible for Jim Jeffords to pretend that he somehow belonged to a different party than Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich did.

The hard right did an impressive job in last fall's local elections in Vermont, picking up 15 seats in the state House. But they weren't strong enough to oust the pro-civil unions Gov. Howard Dean, a liberal Democrat. And they didn't come close to mounting a serious primary challenge against Jeffords. Vermont Republican National Committeeman Skip Vallee last week called Jeffords a "traitor to the Republican Party," but that's wrong. Jeffords hasn't moved left over the past five years any more than the GOP has. What happened is that the politics of his state has changed in such a way that the party became an electoral embarrassment to him.

So he became a Democrat. Yes, a Democrat. If there's one thing more preposterous than the assertion that Vermont is an independent state, it's the assertion that Jeffords is an Independent senator. Jeffords is now a Democrat by whatever criterion you care to use. Ideologically, he is not one of those guys who "could go either way"?he's pretty much in the center of the Democratic Party on most issues. He will vote for Tom Daschle as majority leader. Democrats will not challenge him (and Republicans will) if he runs again in 2006. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada gave up his ranking slot on Environment and Public Works?a committee on which Jeffords didn't even serve?so that Jeffords would be rewarded for his switch with a chairmanship. That's not the kind of favor parties do for unreliable nonmembers. And it's not the kind of seniority career politicians like Reid sacrifice lightly.

Although Jeffords' seat had been in Republican hands for 144 years?that is, since the founding of the party?the GOP was never going to keep him over the long haul. That Jeffords waited so long before bolting had to do with strategy, not principle. Jeffords chose to keep both parties hanging on the telephone in order to sell his vote to the most willing blackmailee. Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles saw through this strategy, which he called "the New England trick." Had Bush and Majority Leader Trent Lott assented to Jeffords' request for $300 billion in education funding, he'd've come up with another request just as big before long. It was Nickles who saw that, at the legislative price Jeffords was asking, the Senate majority was a goodie that Republicans couldn't afford. "We contemplated [making him] King of the Senate," Nickles said, "but we don't have that position yet."

Hillary Clinton's old adviser Lisa Caputo has warned, "This is going to force President Bush to have to govern from the middle." And last week at the White House, Jeffords himself told Dubya he will be a one-term president unless he listens to Republican moderates. Bush may well be a one-term president, but it won't be because he didn't listen to Republican moderates. Look at what happened in Congress over the last few days. On taxes, Bush went hard-right and got most everything he asked for; on education, he brought in the Texan liberal activist Sandy Kress to caucus with Democrats, invited Ted Kennedy to the White House for popcorn and movies, and saw his prized education bill turned into a vehicle for the teachers' unions. Jeffords' J'Accuse must have prompted the President to ask: "What Republican moderates? And where? You mean 23 members of the Rhode Island Yacht Club?" The same logic obtained for the Senate leadership. Where Trent Lott and Don Nickles come from, presenting partial-birth abortion as a "reasonable compromise" with the "moderate wing of the party" is a rather hard sell.

But just because Republicans couldn't live with Jim Jeffords doesn't mean they'll have an easy time living without him. Democrats' narrow Senate margin could widen further overnight. For one thing, the increasingly frail Strom Thurmond is now free to resign. And although Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter has been bought off for now with a committee chairmanship, the three remaining moderate Republicans from New England (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island) have that much less ideological cover. Chafee described it only as "unlikely" that he would leave the GOP. On Larry King Live last week he warned the President, "Hearing Karl Rove say the agenda is going to continue [and] they're not going to deviate?is giving us all pause." But surely Chafee realizes that the presidential wing of the GOP is today the most liberal game in town. The party's congressmen are more conservative than Bush, as are its think tanks, its activists and its voters. If Chafee really thinks the Bush agenda is "divisive," then he's already gone. It's too late for him to bag a Democratic committee chair for his defection, but, at 48, Chafee is young enough to get a chairmanship the old-fashioned way: by hanging around the Senate until his ideas ossify.

GOP senators pretend not to care; you'd almost think they were happy to be back in the minority. After all, as James Inhofe of Oklahoma said, "The majority are the ones who are accountable for failure to carry through a lot of the president's initiatives." Idaho Sen. Larry Craig agreed. "Being in the minority," he said, "will allow us to focus on the fundamental purpose of being a conservative Republican Party. That's good because our message has become blurred as we attempted to work compromises." To Northeastern ears, Larry Craig's "fundamental purpose" will sound suspiciously like "Good riddance!" to everyone to the left of Larry Craig. There is a tipping point somewhere that will lead to the final evacuation from the GOP of Northeastern WASPs who founded it. The only question is whether we're about to reach that point, or whether we reached it last week.

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