For politicians who talk
loudly and often about “character,” Republicans have made 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 accepted responsibility or contemplated the real reasons for Mr. Jeffords’
departure from his lifelong political home.
commentators associated with the G.O.P. attempted to smear 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
Poisonous accusations about
Mr. Jeffordshavebeen spewed up by the same pundits who routinely praiseGeorgeW.
Bush for uplifting the atmosphere of Washington. Their bile carried the usualaromaof
hypocrisy. “Changing the tone” was only a self-servingslogan, 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
That bygone era was evoked by
Mr. Jeffords in the brief, dignified speech he gave 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
So perhaps the real question
about Mr. Jeffords is not why he finally crossed the 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 old 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 from 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