Jim Jeffords is a dyed-in-the-wool Vermonter who clings fast to his state’s staunchly Yankee traditions and its conservative values. But conservatism, as we’ve learned this week, means something very different among the Green Mountains than it does in the Beltway. Up north, conservatives talk about the individual’s ascendancy over government, whereas in Washington you’re more likely to hear them talk about the government’s moral agenda.
Jeffords’ decision to leave his party was, by his own admission, a long time in the making. He was elected just last year to serve another six-year term as a Republican, and he campaigned actively for George W. Bush. Thursday, he answered critics by explaining that while he felt reassured and inspired by Bush's campaign of moderation, he has been disillusioned by what he considers the administration's conservative activism.
As if in rebuke to those who will accuse him of opportunism, Jeffords’ voice broke Thursday when he made his much-anticipated announcement. "My colleagues, many of them my friends for years, may find it difficult to befriend me any longer. Many of my supporters will be disappointed, and some of my staffers will see their lives upended. I regret this very much. Having made my decision, the weight that has been lifted from my shoulders now hangs heavy on my heart."
The path to defection was punctuated by rifts some quiet, some very public. In 1981, Jeffords was the sole Republican in the House of Representatives to vote against President Reagan’s tax-cut proposal. Ten years later, when Clarence Thomas was nominated for the Supreme Court, Senator Jeffords voted against the appointment. In 1994, when the national Republican party began its most recent list to the right, Senator Jeffords took stock and decided that despite his disagreements with the tenor of the Gingrich revolution, he would stay on as a Republican. When the Senate voted against impeaching President Clinton, Jeffords’ was among the majority vote. Again and again, the Vermont Senator voted against the party line: On abortion, on gay rights, on defense spending, on conservation issues and especially on education.
And then, in April, Jeffords joined two other Republicans in voting to scale back President Bush’s tax cut, citing his disagreements with the President’s spending priorities. And that, some say, was the vote that finally propelled Jeffords across the aisle and into the waiting arms of Senate Democrats.
Who lost Jeffords? It will be a source of endless debate whether a tone-deaf Bush White House failed to hear Jeffords and his concerns, or whether Jeffords was looking for an excuse to bail out of a party he could no longer stand behind, and whether he’ll use his newfound fame to gain national prominence as a politician. (His new role is expected to include the chairmanship of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works).
What we can say unequivocally is that Jeffords’ decision single-handedly shifted the balance of power in a carefully calibrated Washington, handing the Senate majority over to the Democrats and dashing Republican dreams of relatively painless passage of the White House agenda.
Only Jeffords himself knows precisely why he decided to shed his party affiliation for the less constricting and far more commodious mantle of independent. Whatever theories surface over the next weeks and months, the record shows that Jeffords had long-standing substantive disagreements with the GOP, particularly on the issue of funding for special education programs. He apparently felt the disagreements had reached a breaking point.
His departure has provided us with a great civics lesson: Thanks to Jeffords’ surprise defection, the whole country now understands exactly how fragile party loyalty can be, and how painstakingly it must be tended. Thanks to his decision, we’ve learned a reality of a closely split Congress: Such delicate division provides each Senator with truly revolutionary power.