- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2001

The departure of Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont from the Republican ranks has been billed as nothing short of apocalyptic by Republican activists. After eight long years of waiting for the presidency, power shift in the Senate reduced the prior 100 or so days to a mere tease, a shadow of what might have been in a Republican Camelot.
After all of the political wakes have been completed, however, the Republicans may ultimately find that this event was more fortuitous than catastrophic. In areas like judicial nominations and the environment, the Republicans have followed Oscar Wildes rule that the only way to be rid of temptation is to yield to it. The result has been a record that already appears immoderate on legal issues and antagonistic to the environment.
Once given the keys to the city, the Republicans left the impression that lobbyists were allowed to run amok. Regardless of reality, polls show that the majority of people believe this image, which is being aggressively and skillfully promoted by Democratic activists. This is particularly odd given the mantra from the White House that President Bush was adept at working with Democratic-controlled legislative bodies as governor. In the first 100 days, there appeared little recognition that there were any Democrats in Congress. Moreover, in failing to invite then-Republican Sen. Jeffords to a special ceremony for a Vermont teacher and other slights, the White House appeared peevish and vindictive with its own party members.
The fact is that the Republicans were not having an incredible run in control of Congress and the White House. To the contrary, while they were technically in control, the Republicans did not have a meaningful hold on Congress to move a hard-right conservative agenda. Despite this fact, the Bush administration acted as if it was inheriting the 1994 Congress and its Republican majority. As a result, it blundered in taking environmental decisions over issues like arsenic and global warming that drove away moderates, who looked to the Bush administration to bring stability and credibility after the Clinton years. What is particularly distressing is that polls show that the vast majority of Republican voters share the strong environmental interests of Democratic voters.
I was one of those environmentalists who were sympathetic with the Bush administration decision to freeze the last-minute orders of President Clinton. The fact is that Mr. Clinton lacked the courage to implement any of these changes until the twilight hours of his term. While I agree with many of these measures, I fully understand why the Bush administration would not yield to such unilateral and uncollegial conduct by a departing president. However, these measures (and other environmental issues) offered Mr. Bush an opportunity to prove the existence and not simply the rhetoric of a "Big Tent" Republican Party.
The administration also failed to control its party members in some embarrassing areas, such as the proposed nomination of Strom Thurmonds 28-year-old son as the United States attorney for South Carolina. For those of us who were critics of the Clinton administration and its lack of principle in politics, the embrace of nepotism is hardly a welcome change from nihilism. Rather than spend time and political capital on such dubious nominations, the administration should focus on fights like the delayed nomination of Rep. Christopher Cox, who is exceedingly well-qualified for the bench and has been isolated solely due to his conservative views.
It is time to speak plainly about these problems. This is an administration that can desperately use a few well-meaning critics both inside and outside of the White House. The administration must gain credibility with those moderates in both parties who identify with Mr. Jeffords, a centrist who is conservative on fiscal issues while supporting environmental issues and moderate judicial nominees. Burdened with the lingering question of legitimacy after the election controversy, the Bush administration could have used individuals like Mr. Jeffords in the Senate and Christine Whitman in the administration to show a more balanced approach. Instead, it has had embarrassing public fights with both Mr. Jeffords and Mrs. Whitman.
Ironically, Democratic control of the Senate may improve the legislative fortunes of the Republicans by imposing a greater degree of balance in policy and legislation. In areas like judicial nominations and the environment, the Bush administration will be compelled to seek views and input from outside of its insular, inner circle. It may be less likely to commit inexplicable blunders like its handling of the energy plan. The Bush administration showed no strategic or tactical sense in excluding environmental and public interest groups in the development of a national energy plan. By simply giving other groups a chance to be heard, the administration could have gained the credibility needed to achieve such sweeping proposals.
Now, like a proscribed political prosthetic, the shift of control in the Senate will impose a degree of restraint that the Bush administration had failed to impose on itself. This country is divided neatly in half. The compelled cooperation and consultation with the other half may be the best thing that could happen for the Bush administration.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University in Washington.


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