When Winston Churchill switched from the Tory Party to the Liberal Party in 1904, he said, "Some men change their party for the sake of their principles, others their principles for the sake of their party." Last week, for the sake of no principle but rather out of personal pique and political petulance, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont changed political parties. Ostensibly he left the Republican Party, but in reality he has been a liberal Democrat for a long time. He was the only Republican in Congress to vote against the Reagan tax cuts of 1981, leaving the top tax rate at 70 percent.
There have been 17 party switches in Congress since 1981, but Jeffords' defection was nothing less than a palace coup. Engineered by Sen. Tom Daschle, it took control of the U.S. Senate away from Republicans and threw it to the Democrats. Never before has a party defection in the middle of a Congress shifted partisan control of either house. Turning over the U.S. Senate to the Democratic Party without an election is unconscionable. Churchill, on the other hand, was a real profile in courage. In 1904, the Tories were on the verge of enacting a protective tariff and abandoning free trade, which had been the keystone of English economic policy and Conservative Party success for a century. Without success, Churchill waged a passionate and furious battle within the Conservative Party against this momentous change in Tory policy. Churchill left the Tories in good conscience, justifying his move to the Liberal Party as "responding to a higher loyalty."
To what higher loyalty did Jeffords respond? What high principle was at stake to warrant his unilaterally reversing the outcome of the Senate elections? Why now? What happened? What changed? He ran as a Republican, and the White House has compromised with him and Sen. Ted Kennedy on education, taxes and prescription drugs.
It's impossible for someone to claim the Republican Party left him when he's against school choice but in favor of abortion choice, against cutting tax rates - he voted just last week against cutting the capital gains tax - against personal accounts for Social Security, against more energy production and against missile defense. These issues are part of the Republican DNA and have been since the election of Ronald Reagan.
Jeffords is particularly disingenuous when he points to education policy as the "great disagreement" with an "uncompromising" Republican president. For today's Republicans, he says, "success (in education) seems to be measured by the number of students moved out of the public schools." But he did not have any problem supporting a school choice program for Washington, D.C., in years past. Nor did he object when the president proposed in his original education plan that any poor child trapped in a failing school for three years be given a voucher to attend any school of his family's choosing.
But now, when school choice has been removed from both the Senate and the House bills, when Senate amendments to the president's original plan boost education spending by more than $513 billion dollars, when Kennedy gushes over the Senate bill and Rep. George Miller over the House version, he decides that the same president who allowed all this to happen to his "No. 1 priority" has moved too far to the right for his tastes. There will be much Monday morning quarterbacking among Republicans over who lost Jeffords. Some lobbyists around Washington already are clamoring for the president to compromise even more. Sen. John McCain has also expressed the opinion that the lack of tolerance of dissent within the rank and file of the party "drove" Jeffords out of the party. But the Republican leadership and the White House bent over backward to give Jeffords and his liberal Democratic compatriots almost everything they wanted on both the tax bill and the education bill.
The Jeffords defection is symptomatic of a deeper Republican malady. Far from being intolerant of dissenting views, Republican leaders have been far too indulgent of political extortion within the party.
Jeffords was protected by the Vermont Republican establishment against a primary challenge and was elected in the general election with the support of the Republican Party. It isn't too much to expect him not to betray the party, especially when control of the Senate and the president's reform agenda hang in the balance.
If Jeffords truly felt as strongly as he professes, why did he not have the courage Sen. Phil Gramm demonstrated in 1983 when he became disaffected with the Democratic Party and resigned his House seat in Congress to stand for re-election as a Republican in a special election? Why doesn't he prove his mettle and decline the committee chairmanship promised him by Daschle? It looks like Jeffords won't be happy until Bush renounces the party of Lincoln and Reagan and follows him into the party of Daschle and Gephardt.