Courageously, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont changes his party affiliation from Republican to Independent and control of the Senate passes to the Democrats.

An essay by Huck Gutman published in the Statesman, Kolkata, India. Also published in DAWN, Karachi, Pakistan on July 5, 2001, under the title "A Defection That Makes History," available on the web at  DAWN - Opinion; 05 July, 2001

"Unmasker in True Character"
   June 15, 2001

         Much to the shock and eventual consternation of President George W. Bush, a quiet Senator from one of the nation’s smallest states changed his party affiliation from Republican to independent.  In doing so, Senator James Jeffords profoundly altered the political landscape of the United States, shifting control of the Senate from Republican to Democratic.  It was the first time in American history that legislative control passed from one party to another apart from the nation’s bi-annual elections.

        The Senate had been evenly divided, with fifty members of each party.  This situation gave ultimate control to the Republicans because the Vice President, Mr. Dick Cheney, who is a Republican, casts a vote in case of tie.  He votes no longer:  the Democrats now control the body, by the thin margin of 50-49.

         This narrow margin of control will do wonders for the Democrats and wll thwart much of what Mr. Bush intended to accomplish.  In the American legislature, the majority party controls all committees.  For the next year and a half, Democrats will have a majority, slim but real, on each committee: all committee chairs will thus be Democrats.  The chairs control what legislation comes before the members, and whether it is delayed or put on a fast track.

        Although a Republican House of Representatives and the threat of Mr. Bush’s veto will prevent Democrats from enacting an agenda of their own, the Democrats now can and most assuredly will bring forward legislation intended to embarrass the President.  Instead of finessing issues and avoiding them, he will have to declare himself against raising the minimum wage, against protecting the health rights of patients, against providing prescription drug benefits for the elderly.   Democratic committees will scuttle Mr. Bush’s plan for an escalation of the arms race into outer space and his drive to privatize the social security system which provides retirement benefits to most citizens.

         Democratic committees will undoubtedly investigate, to widespread publicity, Mr. Bush’s anti-environmental stance.  There will be an extensive public airing exploring why Mr. Bush wants to walk away from the Kyoto accords on emission of greenhouse gases and why he wants to despoil the Arctic wilderness to search for oil.  His choice of arch-conservatives for the federal judiciary – each nominee must be confirmed by the Senate – will be scrutinized, opposed in public, thwarted.

         Senator Tom Daschle, formerly a relatively unknown leader, is now possessed of a platform to speak as the voice of an empowered opposition.,  Overnight, he has leapt into the Presidential contest, emerging as one of the two leading candidates for 2004.

         All in all, this is very bad news for Mr. Bush.  Not only will he find it much more difficult to get his political agenda through the Congress, he will simultaneously be forced to defend his policies from public scrutiny by the newly-energized, gleeful Democrats.

         Important as these actual circumstances are, even more important are the symbolic reverberations of Senator Jeffords’ decision.  These begin with the facts of Mr. Jeffords’ political life.   Despite close to thirty years in the House and Senate, he remained a little-known political figure.  A moderate Republican who shunned the limelight, he occasionally differed with his party when the stakes were not high: he would usually vote his conscience when his vote would not be the deciding one.  He had no particular difficulty when the conservative Ronald Reagan was President, nor did he have insurmountable difficulties with Mr. George Bush, senior.

         But the elevation of Mr. George W. Bush to the Presidency changed that.  The quiet and loyal Mr. Jeffords was placed in an awkward spot.  The President refused to bargain – or even listen – to the few remaining moderates in his party.  When Mr. Jeffords declined to vote for the huge tax cut pushed by Mr. Bush unless it made available additional funding to education, the Bush forces decided it was pay-back time.  In a petty move which they now no doubt deeply regret, they failed to invite Mr. Jeffords to a Presidential ceremony honoring the nation’s best teacher, who happened to be from Mr. Jeffords’ home state of Vermont.  They told various members of the press that they would ‘get’ Mr. Jeffords when future legislation he supported came forward.

         Seeing the present reality and a future which would only grow worse, Mr. Jeffords examined his options and concluded that it was time for him to leave the Republican party.  He realized, as he said in announcing his decision, that “in the past, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and ultimately shape the party’s agenda.  The election of President Bush changed that dramatically.”  At that announcement, those of us in the room could see from small hesitations and quavers of voice that Mr. Jeffords was deeply affected by the magnitude of what he was about to do.  But he pressed forward nonetheless.

         “Increasingly,” Mr. Jeffords said, “ I find myself in disagreement with my party.  I understand that many people are more conservative than I am, and they form the Republican Party.  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.”

         Two weeks later the shock waves of his decision still echo across the nation.  In his home state of Vermont, each day the newspapers are filled with letters opposing or supporting his action, although polls indicate that well over sixty percent of the electorate think that he served his state and nation well, that he acted not out of expediency but from deeply held beliefs.   In the Senate, he has been called a traitor by his former friend, the Republican leader Mr. Trent Lott; he has been applauded by the Democrats with whom he now caucuses.

         What no one could have anticipated is how thoroughly – despite partisan differences – the nation has embraced Mr. Jeffords as a man of conscience.  He has emerged as a man of honor in the midst of what is usually regarded as a dishonorable profession.  He is held up as a reflection of the possibility that conscience need not always give way to partisanship, that honorable decisions can be made even in the midst of ideological struggle.    Over forty years ago a then-unknown Senator named John F. Kennedy wrote a book called Profiles in Courage, detailing the lives of senators who had served their conscience at the cost of acceptance, popularity, party discipline.  Now, the nation seems to have discovered another example of a profile in courage is in its midst.

         The little-known Mr. Jeffords has reinvigorated the political process in the United States, reminding the nation that is possible to act from ethical and not only political concerns.  (I write as no particular admirer of Mr. Jeffords, for whom I have never voted; each time I have met him over many years I have been singularly unimpressed by his character.  What a marvelous thing history is: it continually unfolds, it is constantly being written.  The man or woman we dismissed yesterday or five years ago always has the potential to change not just the political order, but himself or herself – and our view of him or her in the process.)

         Another symbolic reverberation of Mr. Jeffords’ dramatic announcement  resounds across America.  Mr. Bush ran for the nation’s highest office as a “compassionate conservative,” yet reigned as an inflexible conservative in his first hundred days.  No longer.  Not only has the control of the Senate changed hands, but Mr. Jeffords’ bold move had the effect of ‘unmasking’ Mr. Bush.  Suddenly he has  been revealed as an inflexible ideologue, unable even to converse with members of his own party.

        The Bush-Cheney agenda has been severely compromised by the Jeffords’ defection.  No longer can the President proclaim that he is a moderate and a unifier when moderates flee him and he divides his own party.  He needs, now, to move to the center to regain a small measure of the legitimacy which the Jeffords decision stripped from him.  His first step is his trip to Europe, where – unthinkable for him just weeks ago – he will have to mollify European leaders who have been as upset with him as Mr. Jeffords was, over issues as diverse as the Kyoto accords, U.S. high-handedness in trade negotiations, and an unwanted American military escalation.

        Every once in a while politics has the capacity to surprise us.  Such a moment has taken place in the United States with the decision of Mr. Jeffords to leave the Republican Party.