The Centrist Doesn't Hold

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In the eyes of Washington, Senator Jim Jeffords took on a whole new identity last week. Switching parties is a big deal here, akin to a sex-change operation. But in Vermont, the Jeffords of this week seems little different from last week's — independent, pro-tree, pro-choice, pro-special ed. In the eyes of the country, it's George Bush's identity — consummate professional, protean charmer, reasonable conservative — that has become mottled. Bush campaigned as an adult who would restore not only honor but also professionalism to the White House. No all-night sessions strewn with pizza boxes. He would institute appropriate dress, muted cell phones and meetings that started — and ended — on time.

So how did this smooth Bush operation lose Jeffords? First, by its simple failure to recognize that Bush needed him more than he needed Bush. Grownups know that little things matter (Newt Gingrich shut down the government when he didn't like his seat on Air Force One) and that relationships are based on respect and reciprocity. Enamored of the corporate model, the Bushies treated Jeffords like some fungible account executive who could be replaced at will instead of recognizing that in a fifty-fifty Senate, every Senator is king. White House staff rarely saved Jeffords a seat at the table, and even tried to end-run him on the committee he chaired. He wasn't invited to a routine Rose Garden ceremony for a Vermonter named Teacher of the Year, and was reportedly denied his ration of West Wing tour passes. If it was just an oversight (their explanation), they hardly look like management geniuses. If it was a ham-handed snub (everyone else's explanation), it showed how petty they could be.

Even in middle age, White House aides can be full of themselves. But where was the mythical Bush charm, so potent it tamed the entire Texas legislature? In the Oval Office — the most seductive room on earth — with the stakes as high as they get, Bush couldn't persuade the Senator to stay with the party the Jeffords family had thrived in for three generations. It turns out that Bush reserves his charm for those who agree with him or are outright opponents. Wooing those who, by rights, should already be under your thumb looks wimpish. For them, how about the silent treatment or a bust in the chops? Thus Vernon Jordan gets a nickname (V.J.), whereas Jeffords barely gets a hello. Not for Jeffords a dinner in the private quarters or one of those coveted invitations to dine on chicken cacciatore and see the latest movie. Forget a call to the ranch.

In six months, Democrats hadn't been able to define Bush as bent on satisfying his right wing at the cost of the center. Jeffords did that in one press conference. The debate shifted overnight to whether Bush could continue to govern from the right. Already, moderates are getting more attention: John McCain was invited for dinner, Olympia Snowe got her calls returned, Arlen Specter got a leadership post.

Bush aides tried to dress Jeffords in a Yankee clown suit, portraying him as addled from living among oddballs fond of natural fibers, gay marriage and socially conscious ice cream. "It's difficult to address all the quirks of someone who is self-described quirky, and I mean that with all respect," Karen Hughes said, adding, "There's something funny there." Aides described Jeffords, who has never met a camera he would preen for or a cheap shot he would take, as a powermonger seduced by Democrats with the promise of a committee chairmanship. This, although Republicans last week were offering to waive Senate rules and make him chair for life of the Education Committee if only he would.

Bush values most that which he can finesse. At Yale's commencement, the charming C student boasted (again) of winning the presidency despite napping through college. What charming thing could Bush say to a man in his seventh decade who hailed from the greatest generation of Republicans and wasn't leaving because of "something funny" but for something principled? Finding a way to work with those like Jeffords, who saw him ruling from the right when he had promised to govern from the middle, would have taken the kind of effort Bush is loath to expend. The White House expressed no remorse. And on Wednesday, when Jeffords was with his colleagues and was about to go it alone, the eyes of all in the ceremonial room off the Senate floor filled with tears; not only would they be losing the majority, but they would be losing a friend. Jeffords is a serious man. It's why he got away.