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Jeffords out of GOP

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 28, 2001

Well, Anna Quindlen now has a real, live Republican of national consequence to point to in her homilies about the right wing driving "moderates" out of the party. As anyone who has not been living under a rock for the past week is likely to have noticed, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont has left the Republican Party to become an independent and will caucus with the Democrats – thus making Sen. Tom Daschle (D- S. Dakota) Senate Majority leader and throwing the Senate to the Democrats for the first time in six years.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby

The same people who criticized Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby for switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1994 (the New York Times editorial on the subject was entitled "Profiles in Opportunism") and mocked Sen. Bob Smith's (R-N.H.) short-lived conversion to an independent in 1999 are today heralding Jeffords' act as being deeply rooted in principle and courage. This is very convenient. While some criticism can be allowed for Shelby's decision to defer his party switch until after the Republicans took control of the Senate, and Smith's brief switch was counterproductive and poorly thought out, both acts were based on the conviction that a national party had moved too far to the left. Those praising Jeffords only consider it courageous to denounce a national party for moving too far to the right, as their concern is less individual conscience than adherence to a liberal agenda.

It is true that he disagreed with President George W. Bush on many key issues and it is equally true that some of the Bush administration's conduct toward him was petty and foolish. But neither a pious belief in political principle nor a fit of personal pique drove Jeffords' defection. His abandonment of his nominal Republican affiliation was intended to preserve his power in the event the Democrats retook the Senate, either through the loss of Sen. Strom Thurmond's (R-SC) seat or in the 2002 elections – especially given that Jeffords is on record as predicting the latter, and regarding the former he can read the actuarial tables as well as anyone else.

By defecting at this critical moment, he insured a committee chairmanship for himself – something that would not be guaranteed if he switched after the Democrats took over. Moreover, by becoming an independent rather than actually joining the Democratic Party he will retain some of his influence in the current situation as the Senate's key swing vote. No matter how emphatic the denials, Jeffords' motives were transparent.

Where is the key, sudden irreconcilable difference between Jeffords and the GOP that offers any other realistic explanation? Jeffords' disagreement with the party on abortion and most other social issues has been a matter of record for more than 20 years.

He remained a Republican when Ronald Reagan was elected president and when Newt Gingrich's "revolutionaries" swept into town in 1994 – both in many ways to the right of President Bush. He opposes missile defense, but that has been a party priority since 1983. He believes that the Bush administration will not spend enough on unconstitutional federal education programs, yet Bush's education bill passed the House with strong bipartisan support and actually increases such spending. Jeffords did not bolt the party when its platform called for abolishing the Department of Education.

Yes, Jeffords was a lowly House member during the Reagan years and President George H.W. Bush signed liberal legislation he favored. This was his first time in an evenly divided Senate with a president whose agenda he mainly opposed. But Jeffords was sufficiently comfortable with Bush's agenda to endorse him for president and to run for reelection in 2000 with GOP money and support. And if moderating the Bush administration was his real concern, he could have done that more effectively within the GOP as the crucial 50th vote for legislation and a linchpin in the coalition of centrist senators.

Jim Jeffords

Mark Levin correctly labeled Jeffords the RuPaul of the US Senate. He was a liberal, not a moderate, who caucused with the Republicans. He was the only House Republican to vote against the Reagan tax cuts in 1981. He supported the nuclear freeze, voted against the MX missile, opposed the Strategic Defense Initiative and opposed aid to the contras. He opposed President Reagan more often than he supported him in all but one year of his presidency, even as he supported Bill Clinton 75 percent of the time on divided issues. He voted against confirming Clarence Thomas, opposed school choice, favored partial-birth abortion, supported the Sierra Club's environmental agenda, was the only Republican to co-sponsor the Clinton health plan and was one of five Republican senators to oppose impeachment.

According to Americans for Democratic Action, Jeffords' liberal quotient was 55 percent in 2000. This puts him to the left of Sen. John Breaux (D-LA, 50 percent ADA rating) and his party's leading northeastern moderates. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) had a 40 percent liberal quotient, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) stood at 30 percent and Sen.

Susan Collins (R-ME) at 25 percent. His liberal rating was a staggering 50 points higher than the media's favorite maverick, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). By contrast, Jeffords' lifetime American Conservative Union rating is only 26 percent.

Moreover, the National Taxpayer's Union has repeatedly demonstrated that Jeffords favors huge net federal spending increases and offers relatively few bills to cut spending. This exemplar of fiscal responsibility opposed the original Bush tax cut on the grounds that it would not leave enough money for federal spending. He voted against cutting the federal estate tax for the same reason. He attempted to get President Bush to increase federal education spending by another $180 billion.

Far from pushing liberals like Jeffords out of the party, the GOP has embraced them often at the expense of its most loyal constituents. Jeffords first ran for the Senate in 1988 after opposing much of the Reagan agenda in the House. He threatened to bolt the party and run as an independent back then if defeated by conservative primary opponent Mike Griffes. He managed to win the nomination because of the support from leading Washington Republicans including then National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rudy Boschwitz and Bob Dole, even though a conservative Republican could have won the resulting three-way race. When Jeffords came under fire for advancing Democratic initiatives from his perch as committee chairman, Republican leader Trent Lott defended him and went so far as to quell a 1997 challenge to him by conservative Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.). Yet when Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH) voted against Richard Gephardt (D-MO) for House speaker, the Democrats denied him committee assignments.

While this will complicate President Bush's judicial nominations and place the committees in the hands of staunch liberals, Jeffords' defection is not the end of the world. The Senate's composition remains identical and conservatives retain a bipartisan majority on some issues. Senate Democrats will be forced to move beyond obstructionism and perhaps there is some hope Republicans will regain their resistance to excessive federal spending. Jim Jeffords becoming an independent is a short-term setback. Only if the GOP and the Bush administration react to this situation by missing opportunities in an elusive search for unattainable bipartisan, trans-ideological consensus will it become a real loss.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to wjantle@enterstageright.com.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • GOP needs a pit bull - not a cheerleader by Nicholas Sanchez (May 28, 2001)
    Nicholas Sanchez says the talking heads who say Jim Jeffords' defection isn't a blow are flat out wrong. That said, it does give the Republicans a chance to change things around
  • Senator Jeffords did us a favor by Charles Bloomer (May 28, 2001)
    Forget the Republican Party, writes Charles Bloomer, Jim Jeffords may have actually done America a big favor

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