by Randolph T. Holhut
Sen. James Jeffords has long had a reputation for being a low-profile politician who rarely strays from the middle of the road on most issues.
That changed on May 24 when he made the most courageous decision of his long and distinguished political career -- to leave the Republican Party and serve out his Senate term as an independent.
Jeffords departed the party without rancor in a move that had more to do with his political principles than personal hubris.
"I was not elected to this office to be something I am not," Jeffords said in his formal announcement, invoking the names of Republicans who preceded him as Vermont's senators -- men such as Ernest Gibson, Ralph Flanders, George Aiken and Robert Stafford.
Most Americans don't know the stories behind these four names, but they represent the tradition that Jeffords sought to uphold.
Gibson's career in the Senate was short, but as governor in the years after the end of WWII, he helped to begin the transformation of Vermont from a forgotten backwater into a progressive state. Flanders was the among the first senators to take on Joe McCarthy and his reckless witch hunt for alleged communists in the government. Aiken served six terms in the Senate and was the man who helped create the School Lunch Program and the St. Lawrence Seaway. If you are a college student, you've hear of Stafford -- he was the senator who created the low-interest government loan program that bears his name.
What all these men had in common besides being Republicans was that they voted their consciences rather than the party line. Often, that meant they ran counter to the GOP's stance on many issues. But in the end, they did what was best for Vermont rather than what was best for the party. That is the political philosophy that has long been a part of the Vermont tradition.
Jeffords' decision to leave the GOP was more than just an act of conscience. It also had a lot to do with the lack of political savvy of President Bush's staff.
Jeffords disagreed with the Bush team over education funding, particularly the federal government's commitments to special education. That was why he sided with the Senate Democrats in supporting for a $1.35 trillion tax cut package that was smaller than the $1.6 trillion that Bush sought.
The Bush administration saw Jeffords' action as an affront to their agenda, and the word went out that Jeffords was going to be punished for straying from the party line.
Party discipline may be important, but considering that Bush got virtually everything he wanted in his tax cut proposal, there didn't seem to be any point in targeting Jeffords -- particularly when he voted with Bush on everything else in the first weeks of his administration.
With a bit more tact, Jeffords might have been persuaded to stay. Instead, the back room talk of "hardball" and "payback" forced Jeffords to reexamine the place of a New England moderate in a party dominated by Sun Belt conservatives. The Bush team's desire to maintain party discipline ultimately cost them control of the Senate.
Jeffords' switch will slow down the Bush agenda, but it's not likely to change it much. Bush has gotten the big tax cut and the education bill he campaigned on; everything after that is gravy for the White House. But perhaps Bush has learned an important lesson -- that when you have a divided government, you don't tick off the people that allow you to have a working majority.
Despite the anguished cries of the conservative chattering class, most people here in Vermont support his decision. Jeffords has long been a popular politician in this state, and he remains so. His action is proof of Ethan Allen's famous statement about Vermont: "The gods of the hills are not the gods of the valley."
Independence is our proudest tradition. From being the first government in the world to outlaw slavery to being the first state to allow gays to marry, Vermont has always been a place that isn't afraid to be contrary in the name of liberty and freedom. We don't follow the gods of the valley, and never will.
May 28, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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