Left to Right

Posted: May 27, 2001 12:00 AM
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 politics, too. 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. Chairman. 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 left. 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 the right. 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 Democrats. 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 Jeffordsonian Republicans.