need only know Jim Jeffords to trust his motives, I've heard it
said (three times) in 24 hours. This gives a little
advantage to those who don't know Jim Jeffords, because some
of us do not trust his motives. If he is trying to cast himself
as an Emersonian individualist, he fails. "Jeffords, and Fellow
Vermonters, Emphasize Tradition" was one headline. Individualists
care naught for tradition, they care for their conscience. Most
of us believe in the supremacy of conscience but the question before
the house, if inquiring about the purity of Mr. Jeffords's motives,
is: What was it that triggered this geological shift in conscience?
In his statement on Thursday he reported that he had "serious, substantive
reservations about the budget" and that he anticipated disagreeing
with the president on "very fundamental issues the issues
of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions,
missile defense, energy and the environment and "And?
And what on earth else? Whippoorwills? "and a host of other issues,
large and small."
Anyone who has served as a Republican congressman and then senator
for 27 years has had plenty of time to get the swing of things under
the GOP banner. True, under President Clinton, Jeffords voted 75
percent of the time on the Clinton side of divided issues. But that
long endurance as a member of the Republican party would have given
him, one assumes, time enough to discover irreconcilable institutional
differences some time before May 24, 2001. What was it that so suddenly
pushed him over the brink?
His followers tell us that he is not a trivial man. Therefore we
must rule out the failure of the White House to invite him to tea
when a fellow Vermonter got an award as the catalytic agent of his
disaffection. He was reputedly annoyed by his exclusion, but surely
big men don't let an annoyance engender a political revolution.
He didn't agree with the budget. But the tax-cut part of the budget
was reduced from the $1.6 trillion Mr. Bush campaigned for over
a period of six months. That reduction, to $1.35 trillion, was in
part the doing of Mr. Jeffords himself, which substantiates that
he was having an influence of his own on GOP policy. Why didn't
he complain last November that the budget was a sundering difference
between him and Mr. Bush?
Differences on the judiciary? So Mr. Bush opposes abortion
but unlike Bill Clinton, has never said he would be governed in
his nominations to the judiciary only by solidarity on that subject.
Missile defense became a national objective 18 years ago under Reagan.
Clinton backed the idea, though not expansively. How was Jim Jeffords
affronted by the White House's proceeding with a policy for which
Mr. Bush had fought as a national candidate? What is it about Bush's
energy policy that explains a dissolution of lifelong party ties
to the GOP? And before we forget just what are the
"host of other issues, large and small" which made continued life
as a Republican unthinkable for him?
What is dishonorable about the event is the clear exercise of what
I dub the "skyjacker's leverage." One man pulling out a pistol in
a crowded airplane. You don't argue with what he tells the pilot.
What Mr. Jeffords did, holding the one critical vote, was an act
of consummate democratic infidelity. It is one thing to cross the
aisle to plead your case for association with the other political
party, building that case and aiming to seek validation in a general
election. Jeffords didn't do that. He coasted along as a Republican
without any significant complaint before, during, and after Bush
was nominated and elected.
Then the histrionic challenge loomed up. Whee!! Jim Jeffords has
the power to reorient the entire political composition of the United
States Senate, with changes in the leadership of committees that
preside over health, defense, human services, and justice. A man
of greater moral responsibility would have declined self-gratification
of this kind, submitting his case to deliberative democratic processes;
giving his own constituents an opportunity to weigh his case, and
others their case; and, indeed, the president, his.
But the story told us nothing more than that to some people temptations
are, if not irresistible, irresistible to the second-class among
them. "Those who don't know me may have thought I enjoyed the limelight,"
he said in his press conference. "Nothing could be further from
Jim Jeffords just hates the limelight, but good brave loyal soldier
that he is, he'll just put up with it, in the service of his ego.