What Jeffords' Switch Means for the 2002 Campaigns

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President Bush speaks in Cleveland after Sen. Jeffords' announcement

On Thursday, when Vermont’s James Jeffords announced he would leave the Republican Party to become an independent, the whole of Washington (and plenty of the rest of us) descended into a litany of questions. Why did he do it? Where does this leave the GOP?

Looking into the not-so-distant future, it’s also impossible to escape the already looming specter of the 2002 congressional elections. Will Jeffords’ departure affect the outcome of the upcoming midterms?

David Lublin, a political scientist at American University in Washington, joined TIME.com Thursday to dissect the impact of Jeffords’ defection.

TIME.com: In an immediate sense, what does Jeffords’ decision mean for the GOP?

David Lublin: Party members must be feeling a combination of anger and dispiritedness. Remember, this is the first time since the 1950s they’ve had unified control over the executive and legislative branches, and now that control is gone. At this point the party is engaged in what’s called the great "Who lost China" debate — trying to figure out where to pin the blame for the Jeffords loss.

How will the Jeffords defection affect the 2002 midterm elections?

It’s hard to say. On the one hand, midterm elections do tend to go against the party of the sitting President. And some Democrats may see Jeffords’ move as a shot in the arm for their candidates.

On the other hand, conservative Republicans might see the Jeffords brush-off as a reason to mobilize; 2002 may find them energized and ready to fight. And what the Republicans may try to do is redirect any backlash across the aisle by painting the Democrats as the party in control.

Thanks to Jeffords’ decision, the Democrats now control the Senate. What changes, if any, will the power shift bring?

I think that in the Senate the shift is really going to become evident when they start talking about court appointments. The Democrats are still really angry that the Republican Congress rejected all of Clinton’s moderate appointees. The GOP poisoned the well when they refused those nominees; and now the Democrats will probably exact their revenge.

In trying to predict the effects of the Jeffords switch, you have to wonder how far the Democrats will push this slim majority. Things don’t usually pass through Congress on a very tight margin — you need a 67 majority, not a 51 majority, in order to feel truly in control. And obviously neither party is going to have a majority like that anytime soon.

We’ll also have to wait and see if the Democrats will try to change committee ratios. Daschle was very much in favor of an equal distribution when it looked like the Democrats would have 49 Senators — and now that they have 51, it will be interesting to see if his resolve holds.

In his statement Thursday morning, Jeffords talked a lot about his moderate views having no place in the Republican Party. Does this impression create problems for the Republicans?

I don’t know if it’s a problem — it seems to be a very conscious decision. Conservative Republicans have become more cohesive in recent years, and have toed the line. The Republicans seem to demand something like lockstep from party members these days; they’ve apparently lost their ability to compromise or negotiate.

The Republican party has been Southernized, and now the party is no longer known as the party against corruption and for responsible business, but rather a party with an evangelical social agenda — Northeasterners like Jeffords don’t have much use for that kind of Republicanism.

This isn’t going to change anyone’s mind in the Republican Party; they’ve had plenty of opportunities for epiphanies if they were interested. They like their ideological cohesiveness, so they’ll just be mad at Jeffords for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, some southern conservatives are even happy to see Jeffords go — they’ve felt for a long time that he wasn’t a "real" Republican.

Does Jeffords’ departure give the GOP a very public black eye?

It gives them a mild black eye, but I think most people outside the Northeast won’t remember who Jeffords is next week. Up in New England, this move will just underscore the sense that the Republican Party has moved away from its historical values.