After Jeffords, Can the GOP Remain Firm?

Posted: May 30, 2001 12:00 AM
By Sunday morning, and the onset of the political talk shows, Republicans were in full apology mode. They were so sorry Jim Jeffords was offended. They would try to do better. Honest. White House chief of staff Andy Card fell on his sword. He hadn't communicated well enough with Capitol Hill. But Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska wasn't having any of that. "The president must learn," Hagel said. "He must engage more personally." The same president who was knocking eyes out a few months ago with his extraordinary personal reach across party lines? Yes, that president. Oklahoma's Republican Sen. Don Nickles said his party should try harder to make sure Northeastern "moderates'' feel comfortable. "Maybe," confided Kay Hutchison of Texas, "we haven't brought everyone in to make them feel a part of our team and our effort. We're going to do better." Er, um ... by what means? Sizing back the tax cut? Beefing up federal programs? Scrapping strategic defense? Suffocating the energy market with price controls? Jim Jeffords calls to mind the droll line Gore Vidal borrowed from his grandfather, Oklahoma Sen. Thomas Gore: "He (a colleague of the senator's) has all the traits of a dog except loyalty.'' This same Jeffords, from outside, is to help shape the GOP's style and agenda? In the end, probably not; but there is this to keep in mind about Republicans: They have some psychic need to look smooth and pleasant. Republicans want Charles and Sam and The New York Times editorial page to understand that, however things look, the GOP loves ordinary Americans. It's a hard act to bring off because of at least two premises the Democrats and their media cheerleaders bring to scrutiny of the GOP: First, Republican liberals? Ain't no sech (as those quaint Vermont locals might say). They're "moderates," got that? Republican "moderates" like Jeffords can favor big spending and tiny tax cuts; they can vote with Ted Kennedy; for all that, they're temperate fellows -- sane, reasonable, judicious, accommodating. Just like all "moderates," from Tom Daschle on down. Second, conservatism is for hard-faced types in Armani suits. Conservatives want business to run the country. Hey -- isn't it fun the way the energy companies have California on its knees? What it really means to want government off the American people's backs is that you want oil and gas pipelines (never mind the indispensability of oil and gas) wreaking havoc among the caribou. The late George Wallace claimed that between the two political parties there wasn't a dime's worth of difference. Bologna. One crucial difference -- leaving aside philosophy -- is that of spirit. Democrats glory in hardball and fisticuffs. Republicans favor ping-pong and tiddlywinks. I don't say that's all bad. I do say it helps to explain situations such as the GOP now finds itself in -- betrayed, yet feeling compelled to treat the betrayer with restraint and understanding. Instead of calling Jeffords' narcissistic tantrum a narcissistic tantrum, and committing themselves to the fulfillment of the Bush agenda, Republicans anxiously glance over their shoulders: Gee, could we be offending anybody? Oh, please, won't you let us know? True, the Senate is clubby. GOP members can hope Brother Jeffords will at odd moments remember his fraternal connections and actually cast a sensible vote. Why, on the other hand, assume something so out of character for the gentleman from Vermont? It is infinitely too soon to write off the Republicans as a political force, just as it's too soon to picture a political back-stabber surfing the big waves of history. This moment will pass; Charles and Ted will gaze elsewhere for entertainment. Will they will gaze -- this is the question -- on a Republican Party stumbling from apology to apology, or on one trying to do what it thinks honorable and right? There's your test of vitality -- the only test there is in the real world, as opposed to the shadowy haunts of Sen. Jim Jeffords.