Jeffords Leaves

The last words of the quintessential act of American rebellion, the Declaration of Independence, are “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont recently bolted the GOP to give Democrats the control of the Senate by one vote. Jeffords’s honor may have remained intact with this admittedly smaller act of rebellion, but likely, the prospects for his life and fortune, far from being at risk, stood to be enhanced. You may give Jeffords credit for sincerity, but certainly not for courage. Jeffords would have been courageous if he had switched when Republicans controlled the Senate and the move may have cost him politically.

Careful examination by groups as diverse as the American Taxpayers Union and Americans for Democratic Action shows that Senate voting records really do form a bi-model distribution. Democrats, even Conservative ones, tend to vote one way, and Republicans, even Liberal ones, tend to vote another way. Even purported Democratic Conservatives like John Breaux of Louisiana very often vote with their more Liberal Democratic compatriots. There are a handful of Republicans, most noticeably Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Olympia Snowe from Maine, who really do wander the barren and dangerous no man’s land of “moderation.” Jeffords’s voting record could really put him honorably in either party, but he would by no means be a mainstream Democrat. It will be interesting to see if Jeffords’s voting record changes now as a declared Independent.

Jeffords is personally popular in his own state so party affiliation provides at best only a slight advantage or impediment with Vermont voters. However, quitting the GOP and voting with Democrats gives Jeffords some important advantages. Term limit restrictions on committee chairs would have deprived Jeffords of the chair of the education committee. Because of his crucial switch, he was able to negotiate with Democrats for a critical environmental committee chairmanship. Just think of it, an Independent, selected to chair a Senate committee.

Jeffords argues that President George Bush is more Conservative as a President that he ran as a candidate. It is unclear what particular part of the Bush platform, his tax cut or his education initiatives surprised Jeffords. Bush’s legislative program is pretty much what he promised in his campaign. Bush was after all a “compassionate Conservative.” What did Jeffords expect, a Liberal?

Much is made of the fact that Bush neglected to invite Jeffords to a White House ceremony honoring a Vermont teacher as a small slap on the wrist for working against the Bush tax plan. If such a small act would cause Jeffords to switch political parties, it would imply a sorry petulance inconsistent with the dignity Jeffords wishes to project.

A more plausible reason for switching is that his political leverage is greatest now. As a Republican, he was just one member of a party led from the White House. The Democratic power base, by contrast, is now the Senate. If Strom Thurmond, straddling one hundred years of age, were to become incapacitated and be replaced by a Democrat selected by a Democratic governor, Jeffords would loose leverage in negotiations to switch parties. Sure, the Democrats would have welcomed his abandonment of the GOP, but they would have had to make fewer concessions to him given the majority they already would have.

When Senator Phil Gramm switched from a Democrat to a Republican, he resigned and submitted his name to the Texas voters for approval under the auspices of his adopted party. When Senator Ben Nighthorse-Campbell rose from a Democrat to a Republican, he, like Jeffords, who descended in the opposite direction, did not bother to resubmit his name for voter approval. It should be noted that when Nighthorse-Campbell switched, current Democratic leader Tom Daschle criticized Nighthorse-Campbell for not doing the “honorable” thing and calling for a special election. Neither Nighthorse-Campbell nor Jeffords did anything disreputable in leaving their parties, but certainly, Gramm has set the standard for party-switching honor.

The loss of the Senate is surely an important set back for Republicans. However, Democrats may find (as Republicans have) that it is often easier to be the party in opposition than to labor under the responsibilities of leadership. In addition, if the Senate proves too obstructionist it may become a convenient political target for Republicans. Democrats should be careful what they wish for, lest they get it.

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