For politicians who talk loudly and often about “character,” Republicans
mostly a poor display of that quality since Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left their ranks.
Certain Republican Senators quickly sought to blame Mr. Jeffords’ courageous decision
on hatchet-wielding associates of the President, while those White House operatives
just as quickly tried to place the onus on Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
While both factions deployed their spin, each against the other, neither
or contemplated the real reasons for Mr. Jeffords’ departure from his lifelong political home.
Meanwhile, leading commentators associated with the G.O.P. attempted to
Mr. Jeffords as both a liberal squish and a faithless opportunist. To them, the only
plausible explanation for his daring shift of support from the Republicans to the
Democrats was an urge to preserve a committee chairmanship for himself (in the
event that 98-year-old Strom Thurmond should expire). According to these critics, it
was foul play for Senate Democrats to guarantee that Mr. Jeffords would not forfeit
his chairmanship if he changed his affiliation—but perfectly fair for the Republicans
to offer him a position in the Senate leadership if he didn’t.
Poisonous accusations about Mr. Jeffords have been spewed up by the same
who routinely praise GeorgeW. Bush for uplifting the atmosphere of Washington.
Their bile carried the usual aroma of hypocrisy. “Changing the tone” was only a
self-serving slogan, the kind of cheap sanctimony that winners forget as soon as they
sense they might be losing.
These conservatives, who in previous years have welcomed every Democratic
turncoat with glee and gloating, didn’t notice how ridiculous they sounded when
they suddenly began to wail about the treachery of the Jeffords move. Nor did they
seem to realize that by spraying him with venom, they might gradually push other
moderate Republicans toward a similar crisis.
The chorus of denunciation was evidently orchestrated by Karl Rove, the
President’s top political adviser, who tried to save face by questioning Mr. Jeffords’
motives. The spectacle of a scoundrel trying to damage the reputation of a decent
man should disturb the conscience of every fair-minded Republican. And there was
once a time when it would have.
That bygone era was evoked by Mr. Jeffords in the brief, dignified speech
announcing his decision. His statement paid tribute in passing to his mentor, Ralph
Flanders, a liberal Republican who brought honor to Vermont as the first G.O.P.
Senator to seriously oppose McCarthyism. As a young man and political neophyte,
Mr. Jeffords helped Flanders to organize such opposition nationally, preparing the way
for the Senate’s censure of McCarthy in 1954. Since then, of course, ideological
leadership of the G.O.P. has fallen to admirers of the Wisconsin demagogue.
So perhaps the real question about Mr. Jeffords is not why he finally crossed
aisle as an independent, but why he waited as long as he did. Nobody who knows
him well, including his moderate Republican friends and colleagues, believes that he
made his choice lightly—or selfishly. He has a long history of serving his state
quietly and effectively, minus the bombast and self-aggrandizement that is
unfortunately typical of the Senate. Having harmonized in a barbershop quartet with
such ideological foes as Trent Lott and John Ashcroft, he may be a bit stunned by
the current outpouring of hatred upon his head.
Or maybe not. Mr. Jeffords was well aware that his decision would rupture
friendships, as he regretfully predicted the other day. After observing how his
party’s enforcers treated the Clintons and anyone else who got in their way in
recent years, he may well have anticipated the treatment he’s getting now.
Before jumping the aisle, Mr. Jeffords was roughed up merely for dissenting
the party line on taxes and spending. Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot,
among others, urged Mr. Bush to punish the Senator for voting to trim the
irresponsible tax cut. “Don’t get mad publicly, get even privately,” he wrote.
Only by forcing the Vermonter to kneel, according to Mr. Gigot, would the
President prove he was tough enough to govern. Rather stupidly, the White House
acted upon this advice. The President’s aides went into Mr. Jeffords’ state, brought
heavy pressure down upon him from his campaign contributors, and threatened to
cut off the dairy price supports so vital to Vermont farmers.
All the blustering and bullying, however, only served to emphasize the
disappointment Mr. Jeffords has felt about Mr. Bush’s performance so far.
Like many Americans, he seems to have believed the Texan’s rhetoric about
“compassionate conservatism.” It was not the first time that a liberal Republican has
seen hope superseded by experience, but for him it was the last.
What Mr. Jeffords’ bold response demonstrated was that a nice guy need
not be a timid guy.
His example deserves to be emulated by those who have profited from his courage
You may reach Joe Conason via email at: email@example.com