‘Jim’s a rock star now!’ raved one local politician of the decaff-latte persuasion as Senator Jeffords (R. -- wait a minute, D. -- no, for the moment, allegedly I-Vt.) brushed past and a cheering throng swept us into the packed lobby of the Radisson Hotel (ah, the charms of small-town Vermont country inns). Jim, who normally looks as if someone’s twisting a pineapple up his bottom, seemed eerily relaxed, enjoying his new-found eminence as the world’s most famous obscure senator.
But I don’t think he’s a rock star. He’s more Peter Tork from the Monkees, if you can imagine Peter flouncing off in a huff and joining the Partridge Family. Just over a week ago, Jim Jeffords was an amiable goof, whose three-decade ‘Republican’ voting record read like a guy who’s holding the road map upside down – he voted against Reagan’s tax cut but for Hillary’s health plan, against Clarence Thomas but for partial-birth abortion. This is what we in the media call ‘a force for moderation’. But it took a most immoderate act to secure Jim his place in history: in quitting his party, he’s ended the GOP’s hold on America’s longest continuously held Senate seat – Republican for 140 years. Better yet, he’s brought a dash of Westminster horse-trading, a touch of Italian coalition politics to Washington: for the first time in US history, control of the Senate is passing from one party to another without anything so tiresome as an election.
The constitutional propriety of this has mostly gone unremarked. In Burlington, a leathery old plaid-clad lesbian lectured me about Bush’s ‘illegitimacy’ and the Supreme Court’s ‘post-election coup’. But, if it’s wrong to install Dubya in the White House through one vote from an ‘ideological’ judge, surely it’s wrong to install Tom Daschle in the Senate Majority office through one vote from a senator peeved because Bush didn’t invite him to the White House ‘Teacher of the Year’ reception, even though the winning teacher was a Vermonter.
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For my part, I only wish the Right were as tough as the other crowd. Last week, before Jeffords flew the coop, the Democrats were keeping the oldest Republican senator, Strom Thurmond, on the floor hour after hour in one frivolous roll call after another, declining to let him ‘pair’ with a Democrat and so retire early. The genial old sex fiend is 98 and as hot for the gals as ever. But ever since the election the media have been running a ghoulish Strom deathwatch: all it would take is a particularly nubile intern to come jogging bra-less round the Capitol and the 50-50 Senate would belong to the Democrats [in 2001, South Carolina's governor, who would appoint Thurmond's successor, was a Democrat -- TKM]. Last week, as they put the 1948 Segregationist candidate for president through 18-hour days of pointless procedural mischief, it was as if Minority Leader Tom Daschle and his troops had decided they’d waited long enough for ol’ Strom to kick off, and it was time to hasten the process. On the Monday, some of the old boy’s Republican colleagues were worried that he wouldn’t last the night. You gotta hand it to those Dems: there’s a party that knows how to play hardball. They don’t just tear up your Teacher of the Year invite, they measure you up for the Coffin of the Year competition.
No one’s taken a keener interest in Strom’s health than Jim Jeffords. The November election had left one otherwise unimportant man a window of opportunity, which wouldn’t last for ever: Jeffords figured that, if Strom did keel over, Daschle would take charge of the Senate and owe Jim nothing; he’d be just another out-of-work GOP committee chairman. The Republican establishment in Washington claims not to have been aware that Jeffords was checking out until last Tuesday, which is very probably true given the general doziness with which Trent Lott and co. have presided over the Senate. On the other hand, my friend Tom, who’s currently painting my house and goes drinking with a tattooist who’s well-connected in Vermont Republican circles, told me three months ago that Jeffords was planning to quit the GOP. That sounds more like it.
. . . Even if you had no idea that he belonged to the GOP’s ‘moderate’ wing, his campaign ads always suggested a certain sheepishness about his party: he was ‘proud’, he told Vermonters during November’s campaign, to have received the support of so many ‘Independents, Democrats and Republicans’ – this last word mumbled sotto voce, like a schoolboy asking the pharmacist for condoms. You run into him everywhere in Vermont – county fairs, that sort of thing – everywhere, that is, except Republican party events, which he pretty much stopped going to because he always got booed.
Indeed, the one good thing about his belated formal abandonment is that Vermonters can no longer cite their Congressional delegation as a perfect embodiment of the state’s ‘diversity’: one Republican senator (Jim), one Democratic senator (Patrick Leahy) and one Independent Socialist congressman (Bernie Sanders). In practice, this theoretical ‘diversity’ resulted in a remarkable homogeneity: all three vote pretty much the same way on pretty much everything – that’s to say, with the Democrats. Nonetheless, in his speech at the Radisson, after noting that Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery and that its per-capita death toll in the Civil War was higher than any other state, Jim couldn’t resist claiming to be acting in the same long tradition of ‘principled’ ‘independence’ by his courageous act of stiffing his party and going ‘independent’ after first taking the precaution of ensuring that the Democrats would reserve a powerful committee chairmanship for him.
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That the least surprising self-outing since George Michael declared he was gay should cause such havoc is principally the fault of Republican leaders going back 15 years. Not for the first time, the GOP’s Senate backslappers called it wrong, and the fellows on the ground got it right. On 24 April 1984, the Republican Town Caucus of Kirby, Vt (population 347) unanimously adopted the following resolution:
‘Whereas Congressman James M. Jeffords has compiled a voting record of the sort one would expect from a fellow who can’t pour maple sap out of a boot, even with the instructions printed on the heel,’ they began, ‘therefore be it resolved by the Kirby Town Caucus that the true Republicans of this town would cross hell on a rotten rail before they would vote for him again.’
But clubby Washington knew better. In 1988, when Congressman Jeffords decided to run for the Senate, Bob Dole and stiff-necked Mormon Orrin Hatch endorsed him in the primary, even though it was already clear that, whatever his other charms, Jeffords was no Republican, and never would be. And, as no incumbent senator has ever been defeated in Vermont, that’s all the more reason for not giving the seat to an obvious time bomb. LBJ used to say of J. Edgar Hoover and others that it was better to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. But the Senate Republicans let Jeffords in the tent and he still wound up pissing all over them. Last year the GOP establishment assured disgusted party volunteers that no matter how offensive Jim’s votes were – he voted with Clinton 80 per cent of the time – the only vote that mattered was the one he cast to keep the Republicans in the Senate leadership. In the last of many disservices to the Vermont GOP, Jeffords last week nullified that vote, too . . . A vain pliable boob who repudiated even his last residual pledge to his party for the most frivolous reasons is hailed as a giant of political integrity. God help us if that’s true.
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The Republicans are now deep in recriminations over ‘Who lost Jeffords?’ But the real question is: ‘Who cares?’ As Lott, Hatch et al. have demonstrated, the GOP isn’t cut out to run the Senate so it’s for the best they no longer have to pretend they can . . . after all the billions they blew trying to keep Jeffords nominally in line over the years, surely even those dopey Republican Senate big shots must have learned an important lesson about letting the Trojan horse hang around to become one of the biggest nags in the stable.
That last paragraph shows that some things just haven't changed.