Will other GOP moderates do a Jeffords?

May 31, 2001|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's spin team still calls him "a uniter not a divider." But the description rings hollow after Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' departure from the Republican Party. When it counted, Dubya couldn't even keep his own senators united.

Unity is a make-or-break proposition in a 50-50 Senate, where keeping all of your fellow partisans in line is about as easy as juggling 50 balls in the air -- or maybe 50 hand grenades.

Drop one and you lose your majority and your ability to set the body's agenda. You lose the power to shape legislation and decide whether and when it gets to the floor. You also lose committee chairmanships. They have the ability to decide what bills and appointments go forward, what taxing and spending gets done and who gets investigated.

As the last administration demonstrated, the ability to decide who and what gets investigated can do a lot to ruin a president's day.

And senators, even more than House members, traditionally love to have their egos stroked. That's because just about every one of them thinks he or she could be doing a better job of being president than whoever happens to be sitting in the White House.

With all of this in mind, it makes sense for a president to pay particularly close attention to those senators standing closest to the party's exits. For Mr. Bush, that would have been Mr. Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.

Known on Capitol Hill as the New England "Mod Squad," the four moderates have the most liberal voting records of any Republican senators. This reflects the political temperaments of their states, which went for John McCain in their GOP primaries and Al Gore in the general election.

Mr. Jeffords, in particular, broke with his party's increasingly conservative leadership many times during his 25 years in Congress. He has long been a voice for small-government Republicanism tempered by a strong belief in the good that government can do to tackle such problems as education, child care, health care and other help for the poor and the folks liberals affectionately call "working families."

But when his vote made the difference in reducing Mr. Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut to $1.2 trillion in the Senate's budget debate, the Bush White House was not amused. The administration reacted to him with about as much compassion as a street gang that had uncovered a stoolie.

The Bush White House cut Mr. Jeffords, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, out of the planning for Mr. Bush's education bill. It withheld the administration's support from the Northeastern dairy compact, which is about as important to New England politics as oil and cattle are to Texas.

Then there was the Bush team's now-famous failure to invite Mr. Jeffords, a champion of education programs, to the annual White House ceremony for the National Teacher of the Year award, which went to a Vermont social studies instructor.

To make sure the point was not lost, Bush aides slipped the word to reporters that the administration would get even with Mr. Jeffords. They wanted to make an example of him. The marching orders were clear: Toe the line or else. If moderate Democrats could hold their noses and stick with Bill Clinton, so can you.

As with all true believers, conservatives' anger at heretics in their own party seemed more ferocious than their fury over those nonbelievers on the other side.

With all that in mind, it should not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out why Mr. Jeffords split and declared himself an independent. A number of conservative commentators were quick to shout "good riddance." They'd rather have ideological purity in Republican ranks. They appreciated Mr. Jeffords' vote, but not his views. Like their most zealous counterparts on the left, the true believers on the right often forget that, if you want someone's votes, you should not choke off his or her voice.

Ronald Reagan's genius as a great communicator was his ability to unite a broad array of political and cultural views into a winning coalition of Republican votes. The country club and suburban minivan moms and dads did not coalesce naturally with southern Dixiecrats, northern urban ethnics, religious conservatives, Orange County libertarians or New England Yankees. They had to be wooed, prodded, frightened and cajoled into coming together and staying together, one group at a time.

But Mr. Bush neglected to attend to all of his party's diversity, as represented in the Senate.

So, the question that the White House should be asking itself now is not why Mr. Jeffords left, but why the other moderate Republicans are staying. Someone should find out before they, too, head for the exits.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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