WASHINGTON--Left to right is the usual ideological trajectory in most
people's lives. (In Churchill's version of the old adage: ``If you're not a
liberal when you're 20, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative
when you're 40, you have no head.'') Left to right is the norm in American
Over the last 20 years, 14 members of Congress have switched from
Democrat to Republican. Only one has switched the other way. And that one,
Rep. Michael Forbes of New York, was so incoherent in explaining his move
that it had little consequence.
Sen. Jim Jeffords' move has consequence. His bolt from the Republican
Party Thursday was not just a political earthquake, turning the Senate over
to the Democrats and putting an enormous roadblock in front of the
president's legislative agenda. It might portend something more: the
beginning of an ideological countertrend.
It is true that Jeffords hardly woke up one morning with the epiphany
that his true calling was to be an independent. His switch comes partly out
of personal pique, feeling dissed by the Republican leadership on funding
for his pet program (federal aid for special education) and by the White
House for his non-cooperation on the budget.
This is also a classic case of follow-the-polls opportunism. With
Strom Thurmond's health failing, the Senate could have gone Democratic any
day by an act of God. By making it an act of Jeffords, he earns the eternal
gratitude of Tom Daschle, the new Senate majority leader, and other
Democratic senators who will soon be hearing that sweetest of phrases: Mr.
For this service, he will be rewarded with a plum chairmanship
himself, probably the Environment and Public Works Committee. But there is
nothing very new here. Jeffords' switch is not much different from that of
the five House Democrats who bolted their party in 1995 to join the first
Republican House majority in 40 years.
Nonetheless, there is an obvious ideological component to Jeffords'
decision. ``Jeffords looked at the political landscape,'' explained Rep.
Bernie Sanders, another independent from Vermont, ``and saw the country go
much farther to the political right then he is comfortable with.''
It is precisely because the country has shifted to the right over the
last 20 years that people like Jeffords find themselves today out of joint
with their party and political colleagues of long standing--and thus on the
For decades, that kind of estrangement worked the other way around.
Neo-conservatism was born of liberals who found themselves out of joint
with their onetime allies in the Cold War, civil rights era--and thus on
On two issues in particular, the neo-conservatives found themselves
adrift. As civil rights advocates who believed in a color-blind America,
they could not bear their old allies' new agenda of racial preferences. And
as Cold War liberals who believed in Truman-Kennedy anti-communism, they
found themselves equally adrift when their Democratic friends began
incanting ``Come Home, America.''
As the ground under them shifted left in the '60s and '70s, they found
themselves on the right. Which is why for decades the vast majority of
ideological switchers were one-time liberals who became conservative:
Ronald Reagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb,
Norman Podhoretz, Richard Perle, Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, etc.
etc. The list is very long.
The list of those who moved right to left is rather short: John
Lindsay, Garry Wills, Michael Lind, and now David Brock (self-confessed
right-wing hit man, now left-wing hit man).
When the country moved left during the '60s and '70s, many people
found themselves at odds with the new liberalism and became conservative.
By the same token, as the country has moved right since the Reagan
revolution (ironically, under the influence of many of these ideological
switchers), there are now centrists like Jeffords who find the ground has
shifted underneath them and seek their natural place with liberals and
Call him an opportunist or call him principled, the Jeffords switch
may mark the point at which the historic flood of left-to-right defections
abates, and the right-to-lefters make their move. After all, 13 of the 14
Democrat-to-Republican congressional switchers were Southerners. They were
just correcting a historical anomaly: the South's post-Civil War aversion
to the Republican Party. As that recedes into history and as the pool of
party-jumping Southern Democrats shrinks, we may in the coming years see
the jumpers coming from the other side: the tamer but now roiled pool of