- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

Well as political theater goes, Jim Jeffords announcement he is leaving the Republican Party scores about a half-star. But, then, given the personal political calculations which must have actually provided the impetus for the announcement, it could hardly be otherwise. Dressing up self-interest as principle, after all, is often difficult.
Mr. Jeffords purported reasons for leaving break down into two, somewhat overlapping groupings. First, apparently, Mr. Jeffords decided to leave the Republicans because hes a Vermonter and, as we all know, Vermonters are naturally, "independent" at least, this is how Vermonters view themselves.
The Washington Times, for example, in its coverage of the announcement, quotes Vermonter John Alexander as saying, "I think the rest of the country is getting a little bit better picture of what it is to be a Vermonter … Hes voting his conscience. I just wish the rest of the Congress was like that." Undoubtedly, Mr. Jeffords has correctly calculated his decision to switch to "independent" status, while voting with the Democrats for organizational purposes will play well in the political culture exemplified in Mr. Alexanders remark.
Mr. Jeffords touched on this theme in his official announcement stating: "Aiken and Gibson and Flanders and Prouty and Bob Stafford were all Republicans, but they were Vermonters first. They spoke their minds, often to the dismay of their party leaders, and did their best to guide the party in the direction of those fundamental principles they believed in."
Theres only one small problem. With all due respect to Mr. Alexander and Mr. Jeffords, the good senators "conscience" seems to usually lead him to adopt positions which in the main are indistinguishable from any mainstream Democrat. The fairly liberal ADA, for example, rated Mr. Jeffords as being in agreement with their policy prescriptions a respectable 55 percent of the time. Conversely, Mr. Jeffords scored a 36 from the American Conservative Union, placing him between Dianne Feinsteins 28 and John Breauxs 40. And 2000 was a good year for Mr. Jeffords, at least from a conservative perspective. His lifetime average is actually only 27 a figure which would cause few problems for any Democrat from within his own party.
Put a "D" after Jim Jeffords name and there is little to suggest any streak of "independence" or any unique conscience at work. Mr. Jeffords is, in the main, a moderate liberal of the New Democrat variety and always has been. He simply came from a state which allowed him to be so while still carrying an "R" after his name.
Which brings us to Mr. Jeffords second complaint, i.e. that the political situation with the election of George W. Bush has changed to such an extent that he can no longer remain an "independent" Vermonter within the Republican Party and thus must leave. Mr. Jeffords tells us that "In the past, without the presidency, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the partys agenda. The election of President Bush changed that dramatically."
Given this changed political environment, Mr. Jeffords tells us that "Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where Ill disagree 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 a host of other issues, large and small."
One may well ask of Mr. Jeffords, "When was it ever different?" Mr. Jeffords seems to forget he served his first four years in the Senate under W.s father. A look at the record shows he found it fairly easy to oppose a sitting Republican president while still remaining comfortably a Republican. Indeed, Congressional Quarterly, in its profile on Mr. Jeffords, presents a rather interesting picture of Mr. Jeffords in this regard. According to CQs vote study, Mr. Jeffords in 1992 opposed President Bush 53 percent of the time. In contrast, the most he ever opposed Bill Clinton was in 1995 when he opposed that Democrat president 49 percent of the time. Further, in 1994 he actually supported Mr. Clintons position a whopping 79 percent of the time.
Moreover, in 1991 and 1992, the last two years of the Bush administration again, according to CQ Mr. Jeffords felt comfortable enough with the party to actually buck the partys position 62 percent and 61 percent of the time, respectively.
And finally, let us not forget it has been on particularly high profile issues upon which Mr. Jeffords has felt free to play the "maverick." In his announcement he worries over his abilities to dissent on "issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary" forgetting, apparently, he felt perfectly free as a Republican to vote against the senior Bushs nomination of Clarence Thomas. In his announcement he frets about "missile defense" forgetting, apparently, he felt perfectly free as a House Republican to vote against it when Republican President Ronald Reagan first proposed it. In his announcement he fusses over "tax and spending decisions" forgetting, apparently, he felt perfectly free as a House Republican to vote against the Reagan budget plan.
The truth is that Mr. Jeffords has been voting against Republican presidents and the Republican Party on "issues, large and small" for years.
So, then, why did he leave and why now? Most likely because, as several pundits have noted, Mr. Jeffords determined that, given Sen. Strom Thurmonds advanced age, the Democrats would soon recapture the Senate anyway, thus leading him to the conclusion now was the time to preserve his own political power by cutting a deal for a plum committee chairmanship. Or maybe he is truly so petty he shifted control of one of the two houses of our Congress an historic first because he wasnt invited to a White House ceremony. The mind of the "maverick" can often be hard to discern.
Of one thing we can be certain, though: his decision had virtually nothing to do with either his much vaunted "independence," "principles," "conscience," etc., or any changed landscape in Washington. Instead, his choice had everything to do with his own personal political calculations however shrewd or petty they may have been.

Alan L. Anderson writes on politics and culture from Roanoke, Ill.

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