In one episode of "The Simpsons" the town's evil billionaire, Monty Burns, runs for governor. When the Simpsons inadvertently ruin Burns' campaign, he turns to his aide-de-camp and declares, "Smithers! This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That's democracy for you."
Well, that's pretty much the sentiment among Republicans across Washington this week. Vermont Senator James Jeffords has declared he's no longer a Republican, a move that will effectively hand the keys to the best bathroom in the Senate to Democrat Tom Daschle, by making him Senate Majority Leader.
The mellower Republicans want to beat Jeffords about the head and neck with a semi-frozen flounder. For example, during his press conference, Jeffords admitted that the current chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Charles Grassley, "dreamed all his life of being chairman. He's chairman a couple of weeks, and now he will be no longer the chairman."
OK, I admit, it takes a very strange person to say as a small child, "Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee." Still, a dream's a dream, and by tipping the balance of power to the Democrats, Jeffords snatched Grassley's away from him. And, yet, if Grassley were to, well, you know, Grassley would be the one to go to jail.
Alas, Jeffords is squashing the dreams of many people, including any of his staffers who had planned long careers in the Republican Party or hoped to keep playing in the GOP softball league. All Senate committees will be Democrat-chaired and run. All of President Bush's court picks will now have to stand on one leg, pat their heads and rub their bellies while singing the alphabet backward, just so they can schedule a confirmation hearing.
For the first four months of his presidency, Bush could phone Trent Lott, the Republican leader in the Senate, and say, "Trent, baby, you have strange hair." Well, he can still say that. But he also used to be able to say, "Here's what we're going to do tomorrow." And he can't say that anymore. Bush now has to ask, "So, what do you think they're going to do tomorrow?" That's a huge difference.
What rankles the Republicans I've talked to is the pettiness of Jeffords' rationale for leaving. The Vermont Senator denies he's changing parties because of various alleged White House snubs, such as his not being invited to a teacher of the year ceremony at the Rose Garden. But his stated reasons don't make him seem any more principled.
First, Jeffords says he's leaving the GOP on principle, but at the same time he was unwilling to make the change unless Democrats promised him a chairmanship. Some principle.
Even more annoying is his claim that he feels the increasingly conservative GOP has no room for moderates like him.
"I find myself in disagreement with my party. I understand that many people are more conservative than I am. ... It has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them," Jeffords said.
This is plausible, until you hear his only example of an oppressively conservative party. Jeffords says his "largest" disagreement with the administration is the current Bush education plan. If Jeffords had said he was leaving the party because vests don't have sleeves, he couldn't have sounded more absurd.
To call the Bush administration's education sell-out anything but a complete fire sale would be too generous. Not only has the White House abandoned vouchers, Bush has dropped his commitment to local control of schools and tripled spending on bilingual education (which is primarily supported by liberal activists).
Indeed, the day Jeffords blamed Bush's education plan, columnist Robert Novak reported that even Bush's own, liberal, education secretary doesn't like the current bill because it gives too much away.
Personally, I'm not too dismayed that Jeffords is leaving the GOP; I think liberals belong with the liberal party and conservatives with the conservative party. But by switching teams now - six months after being elected as a Republican, running partly on the Bush agenda - and by claiming the GOP is more hostile to moderates today than it was when he campaigned, Jeffords is slandering his former colleagues for reasons that have remarkably little to do with principle. And he's squashing their dreams in the process.