Jeffords trips up Bush plan

May 25, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- That was one mushy pie in the face that now former Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords inflicted on President Bush in one of the most historic and significant defections ever from a political party.

Mr. Jeffords, in his customary mild-mannered fashion, cast his reasons for leaving the GOP to become an independent in terms of disagreements with the party, not just Mr. Bush. But the practical effect of his action is to throw a huge monkey wrench into Mr. Bush's plans to deliver a conservative agenda reminiscent of the Reagan years.

"I understand that many people are more conservative than I am, and they form the Republican Party," Mr. Jeffords said. "Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them."

Those Republican leaders, including the president, are going to find themselves left with an even tougher struggle, with the Democrats in control of all Senate committees and the floor traffic under the direction of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

For all of Mr. Bush's talk about bipartisanship, well before Mr. Jeffords jumped ship the president had gotten Democratic backs up over his partisan push for his mammoth tax cut, his conservative judicial nominations and a host of other matters. Although his tax cut finally got through the Senate, the Democrats flexed their muscles with an avalanche of amendments that delayed passage and demonstrated their ire.

There are some conservative Republicans already saying goodbye and good riddance to Mr. Jeffords, a moderate. In the old days when there were such things as liberal Republicans, it was much the same. Men like Sen. Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller were more despised by the party's conservative core than the most liberal Democrats because they declined to get with the party program and would not keep their mouths shut about it.

The remaining moderates in the Senate, people like Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Richard Lugar of Indiana, urged Mr. Jeffords not to go overboard. But they have to know that the party of Trent Lott and George W. Bush is not always a comfortable ideological fit for them either.

The question now is what Mr. Bush and Mr. Lott do about the changed political reality in the Senate and the internal damage inflicted on the party by this major embarrassment. Mr. Hagel observed mildly that "we need to take some inventory here ... and maybe make some adjustments."

It remained for the engineer of the GOP straight-talk express, Sen. John McCain, to tell it with the bark off. Mr. Jeffords' defection, he said, "can have a positive impact on how our party responds to members who occasionally dissent from party orthodoxy." (It takes one to know one). For Mr. Jeffords' "votes of conscience," Mr. McCain went on, "he was unfairly targeted for abuse, usually anonymously, by short-sighted party operatives from their comfortable perches in K Street offices, and by some Republican members of Congress and the staff."

Warming to his task, Mr. McCain suggested that "perhaps those self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty will learn to respect honorable differences among us, learn to disagree without resorting to threats and recognize that we are a party large enough to accommodate something short of strict unanimity on the issues of the day. Tolerance of dissent," he concluded, "is the hallmark of a mature party, and it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up."

The last leading Republican to tell his party conservatives to "grow up" was Barry Goldwater in 1960, when he urged them to back Richard Nixon for president whether they liked him or not. Nixon lost, but the conservatives grew up sufficiently to elect Nixon in 1968 and 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

Although Mr. McCain insists he is a conservative, he makes no effort to hide his sharp disagreements with the Bush agenda, and his remarks critical of the party leadership's treatment of Mr. Jeffords suggest the McCain-Bush feud of last year's election campaign is alive and well.

Four months into his presidency, Mr. Bush as Mr. Bipartisanship seems to have bipartisan trouble. Having done relatively little reaching out to Democrats, he now has some reaching out to do in his own political family as well.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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