Posted on June 8, 2001


Why The GOP Left Jeffords

"Progressives" are stuck in the past


Daniel Clark


Poor Jim Jeffords. So abused. So neglected. So relentlessly tormented by those callous and pig-headed conservatives. It's enough to make one want to dedicate an awareness week.

From the news accounts, you'd think that Senator Jeffords had escaped a hostage situation by changing his party affiliation from Republican to Independent. The Republican Party he'd belonged to all his life had been "captured" by the "extreme right-wing," which kept him gagged and tied up in an isolated corner of the Big Tent. All he ever asked for was a place at the table, but instead, those mean-spirited, intolerant zealots starved him, took away his medicine, and threw his shivering body out into the snow. Well ... metaphorically, anyway.

Rather than analyzing Jeffords' motives for his own actions, media analysts ask only what the Republican Party did to drive him to it. The answer, predictably enough, is that the party has become too conservative, and that if it wants to win back people like Jeffords, and therefore control of the Senate, it must shift abruptly toward the ideological left.

A moderate, in its natural state

Other liberal Republicans are encouraged that their party might now take steps to accommodate the "moderates," whom they complain have been "marginalized." Sen. John McCain, who during the 2000 presidential campaign compared himself to Luke Skywalker, has told his Republican peers to "grow up." Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine warns that her viewpoints "have to be represented as well as accommodated." The whole episode has the ring of a student protest, perhaps for the establishment of a moderate studies department at Berkeley.

The Republican Party has indeed moved significantly to the right since the Vermont senator first entered politics; that much of the authorized Jim Jeffords story is true. What isn't true is the suggestion that this trend has worked to the detriment of the party.

Jeffords first won a seat in the House of Representatives back during the Nixon-Ford-Rockefeller era, when Ross Perot's assertion that "there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties" would have actually merited consideration. It was a time when Republicans would bicker with Democrats over how low to set price controls and how much to give away in corporate and farm subsidies, rather than challenging the premise that those things should exist in the first place. When Ronald Reagan warned citizens to view a powerful federal government as a threat, he shocked the leaders of both parties alike, just as Barry Goldwater had done before him.

shiny happy people

The liberal Republicans of the Seventies referred to themselves, and some still do, as "Rockefeller Republicans," after New York tax-and-spend Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who later served as Gerald Ford's vice president. It's a far more honest label than "centrist," "progressive" or "moderate," and it doesn't carry the baggage that would come from identifying with Nixon, or with the man who pardoned him. Yet the moniker has fallen out of favor over the years, no doubt in part because it represents defeat.

The Reagan Republicans, considered a fringe element in 1976, are now unquestionably the mainstream of the party. On the other hand, the only Rockefeller left in Washington is Jay, the senator from West Virginia, who is a Democrat (and is he ever). It's not as if there were a deep political fissure within the Rockefeller family, either. Nelson and Jay Rockefeller are much more philosophically alike than the two George Bushes are. It's just that the maternalistic vision of government, held by both parties in Nelson's day, is now held by only the Democrats. Any politician holding that view who remained in the GOP was destined for a career of frustration.

Reagan: needs no 'leadership council'

Namby-pamby groups like the Republican Leadership Council use Reagan's tolerance of dissent to encourage other conservatives to be more accepting of "moderates" in their party. However, Reagan has never been an advocate of the unprincipled "Big Tent" philosophy, which denies any moral superiority of one position over another. He took the more pragmatic view that somebody who opposes you ten percent of the time is your ally the other ninety. Therefore, he avoided the conflicts of personality that often arise between usual political allies when they disagree on a single issue.

Jim Jeffords has not been a ninety percent ally of the Republicans. He hasn't even been a fifty percent ally -- not even close. During his speech announcing that he was leaving the party, Jeffords listed among the reasons, "the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues, large and small." As far as Jeffords' congressional record is concerned, he voted against President Reagan's across-the-board income tax cut, he supported Hillary's health care plan, and he opposed the Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.

...And that's not all! He also voted to acquit President Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice charges, and he called Juanita Broaddrick's rape accusation against Clinton "a private matter" -- even if true!

Exactly what is it that President Bush should have done to accommodate all that?

When conservatives are perceived to be out of the mainstream, this is seen as a defect. Critics who rail against "extremists" don't have to rebut their arguments, because the very fact that they are in the minority is presented as evidence that they are wrong. When it's a liberal like Jeffords who's out of the mainstream, though, the problem lies with everyone else. Not only is there no longer any virtue assigned to being in the mainstream, but it's the extremist who is presumed to be in the right. He is a "maverick" and an "independent thinker," who resists the tyranny of the majority.

One of the most familiar charges leveled against conservative Republicans is that they are "out of touch." But nobody ever says that about a liberal like Sen. Jeffords, despite his being so out of touch that his next campaign slogan will probably be "We Have Pogs."

Some call them 'progressives.'

Actually, even that would be decades beyond Jeffords' grasp, if you look at where he stands on the issues. In the Republican Party, support for price controls, socialized medicine and abortion on demand went out with wide lapels, 8-track tapes and wheat germ.

People who hold Sen. Jeffords' political viewpoints are often referred to as "progressives," yet they often seem oblivious to the developments of the past thirty years. On education, they still believe, after all these years and billions of dollars, that the fundamental problem is inadequate funding. On national defense, they were wrong every step of the way through the Cold War, and still they don't admit it or understand why. On abortion, they believe that the intellectual position is to not want to know, and so to deny everything that's been learned about genetics and embryology since Roe v. Wade.

Okay, so Jim Jeffords is actually neither moderate nor progressive. But hasn't the Republican Party still harmed itself by drifting away from him? Well, just take a look at the Contract With America, a collection of governmental reforms so badly needed that most Democrats -- although they criticized the contract itself -- were afraid to oppose its specific provisions. Bill Clinton, who himself would never have signed the contract, nevertheless felt compelled to sign 7 of its 10 points into law. What forced his hand was the fact that the contract was the centerpiece of the 1994 Republican campaign, in which they won the majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years.

If the Republicans had concerned themselves then with "reaching out" to people like Jeffords, they would never have won the majority in Congress in the first place, because Jeffords opposed the contract. He must have been particularly offended by the passage where it envisions "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money." How immoderate.

What was even less moderate was Jeffords' tone when asked why he didn't support the proposed reforms. The embittered New England liberal let his elitist streak show when he clucked that the Contract With America had a "Southern religious-right focus, which is not the United States. It's the South, but it's not the United States." Got that? So stop trying to reform welfare, cut taxes, and force the federal government to live within its means ... YOU HICKS!

Nobody knows exactly what took place when Jeffords met with President Bush shortly before going public with his decision, but it must have been amusing. You can just picture Bush staring blankly at Jeffords, blinking a couple times, and saying, "Now let me get this straight. If I give you the concessions you're asking for, we'll keep the majority in the Senate. Of course, that won't do me any good, because I'll have bargained away all my initiatives so that you'd stay. Now ... what is it that I get out of this again?"

A question like that would have stunned Jeffords. Republicans aren't supposed to expect anything in return when they negotiate. In the Senate, that's considered a breach of decorum.

The Senate, mind you, is where most "moderate" Republicans reside. Since the usual progression of a congressional career leads from the House to the Senate, it is the Senate which is strongly influenced by the Rockefeller Republicans who entered politics in the Seventies. The House, on the other hand, is controlled by those "extremist" Reagan Republicans whose careers began in the Eighties and Nineties.

According to the common wisdom of Washington, centrism is the key to success. If that were so, it would be in the Senate, which failed to override President Clinton's vetoes, and which excused him for his perverted crimes, where the Republicans maintained control. The House Republicans, who impeached Clinton, were supposed to have been wiped out of office in a tidal wave of discontent. Yet it is they who have remained in the majority through the 2000 elections, despite having lost seven incumbents to self-imposed term limits.

See the pattern? When mainstream Republicans do things that Democrats, liberal Republicans and media pundits warn them will bring about their demise, they generally succeed. When they heed the advice of those same people, it depresses their public support, and they often lose. Perhaps by now, the Republicans are beginning to get the sneaking suspicion that their enemies just might not have their best interests at heart.



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