Local Politics

Vermont Senator James Jeffords’s decision last month to leave the Republican Party, and in so doing turn control of the Senate over to the Democrats, came as a political earthquake to Washington, especially to the Bush administration. Despite the close and disputed presidential election and only the slimmest majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans have been vigorously pursuing President George W. Bush’s conservative legislative agenda. Jeffords’s defection puts an end to Bush’s ability to govern from the right on taxes, military spending, the environment, and other issues. Whether or not it will persuade the Republicans to seek a broader and more moderate consensus is not clear. But whether or not Jeffords’s decision changes the ideological tone in Washington, it does remind us that representative democracy still revolves around the decisions of individual men and women. That is something to be grateful for.

Commonweal readers should not have been shaken or surprised by Jeffords’s decision. The independent character of Vermont’s divided congressional delegation was well reported in Dennis O’Brien’s recent profile of the state’s senior senator, Patrick Leahy ("Vermont’s Leahy," June 16, 2000). Leahy is the only Democrat ever to have been elected to the Senate from Vermont. Historically, Vermont has been a Republican stronghold, but not a conservative Republican stronghold. Explaining why his political opponents do not easily exploit Leahy’s liberal voting record, O’Brien noted that "Vermont Republicans are themselves quite liberal." As an example of the state’s habit of moderation, O’Brien pointed to Jeffords’s support for the National Endowment for the Humanities, a perennial target of cost-cutting conservatives. Jeffords’s status as the Republican senator who most often voted with the Clinton administration was also noted. In a small state like Vermont, even senatorial politics is intensely local. For Jeffords and Leahy, that means paying attention to environmental, agricultural, and education issues. Jeffords’s decision to become an Independent who will support the Democrats in organizing the Senate exposes the ideological bias of and lack of moderation in Bush’s program.

Republicans angered by Jeffords’s defection accuse him of grandstanding and opportunism. Despite its Republican heritage, Vermont is an increasingly liberal state, they say, and Jeffords is just following the political winds. Political calculation, of course, cannot be counted out. Still, Jeffords’s public statement about his decision was refreshingly straightforward and plainspoken, and his legislative record is remarkably consistent. In explaining his decision, Jeffords alluded to his roots in the "party of Lincoln," but also noted that his Republican predecessors "were Vermonters first." He spoke of independence, social conscience, tolerance, and fiscal responsibility. Given his more liberal views on abortion, the environment, military spending, and judicial philosophy, he acknowledged "it has become a struggle for our [Republican] leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them." He stressed how Bush’s much-touted education bill does not provide the resources needed to improve the nation’s schools or address special education needs. In short, Jeffords confessed he could no longer support the tax-cut driven philosophy of his party.

Jeffords’s unwillingness to vote for Bush’s initial $1.6-trillion tax cut set him on a collision course with the White House. Jeffords thought the tax cut was too large and would inevitably result in curtailing vital domestic programs and producing large deficits. As the New York Times’s Paul Krugman has written (May 27), "the pretense that taxes can be sharply cut without undermining the fiscal integrity of the nation has been maintained via financial fakery that, if practiced by the executives of any publicly traded company, would have landed them in jail."

Jeffords has been admirably consistent on the question of taxes. He was the only Republican member of the House of Representatives to vote against Ronald Reagan’s tax cut in 1981. As a fiscal conservative, he recognized that Reagan’s spending plans would burden the federal government with massive deficits. He was right then, and his skepticism about Bush’s tax cuts seems well grounded now.

Democrats are, of course, gratified by this stunning turn of events. But as Jeffords himself warned, his independence and fiscal conservatism will not always be viewed with such enthusiasm by his new political allies. Nor does Jeffords’s decision auger well for the diversity and ultimate strength of the political parties. As the stark geographical divisions apparent in the presidential election made clear, both parties are becoming more regionally based and ideologically uniform. Without the vigorous internal party debate that liberal Republicans and conservative and prolife Democrats foster, both parties risk becoming more out of touch with mainstream America.

In a more positive light, however, Jeffords’s decision reminds us of how close a senator or congressman often is to the people of his or her state. Like Jeffords, most members of Congress have spent many years in a variety of elected positions. At each level of government, successful politicians must forge a real tie with the people they represent. At some level, they have to communicate a sense of shared values. In doing so, they earn the right to speak on behalf of the citizenry as a whole. Jeffords, it seems, has earned that right in Vermont. In showing us that even in this technological age democratic politics remains personal and questions of conscience paramount, he reminds us of why we value it so highly.

Published in the 2001-06-15 issue: 
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