The Humble Patriot

Posted: May 27, 2001 12:00 AM
You need only know Jim Jeffords to trust his motives, I've heard it said (three times) in 24 hours. This gives a little advantage to those who don't know Jim Jeffords, because some of us do not trust his motives.

If he is trying to cast himself as an Emersonian individualist, he fails. "Jeffords, and Fellow Vermonters, Emphasize Tradition" was one headline. Individualists care naught for tradition; they care for their conscience. Most of us believe in the supremacy of conscience, but the question before the house, if inquiring about the purity of Mr. Jeffords' motives, is: What was it that triggered this geological shift in conscience?

In his statement on Thursday he reported that he had "serious, substantive reservations about the budget" and that he anticipated disagreeing with the president on "very fundamental issues -- the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment and --" And ? And what on earth else? Whippoorwills? "And a host of other issues, large and small."

Anyone who has served as a Republican congressman and then senator for 27 years has had plenty of time to get the swing of things under the GOP banner. True, under President Clinton, Jeffords voted 75 percent of the time on the Clinton side of divided issues. But that long endurance as a member of the Republican Party would have given him, one assumes, time enough to discover irreconciliable institutional differences some time before May 24, 2001. What was it that so suddenly pushed him over the brink?

His followers tell us that he is not a trivial man. Therefore we must rule out the failure of the White House to invite him to tea when a fellow Vermonter got an award as the catalytic agent of his disaffection. He was reputedly annoyed by his exclusion, but surely big men don't let an annoyance engender a political revolution.

He didn't agree with the budget. But the tax-cut part of the budget was reduced from the $1.6 trillion President Bush campaigned for over a period of six months. That reduction, to $1.35 trillion, was in part the doing of Sen. Jeffords himself, which substantiates that he was having an influence of his own on GOP policy. Why didn't he complain last November that the budget was a sundering difference between him and Bush?

Differences on the judiciary? So Mr. Bush opposes abortion -- but unlike Bill Clinton, has never said he would be governed in his nominations to the judiciary only by solidarity on that subject. Missile defense became a national objective 18 years ago under Reagan. Clinton backed the idea, though not expansively. How was Jim Jeffords affronted by the White House's proceeding with a policy for which Bush had fought as a national candidate? What is it about Bush's energy policy that explains a dissolution of lifelong party ties to the GOP?

And -- before we forget -- just what are the "host of other issues, large and small" that made continued life as a Republican unthinkable for him?

What is dishonorable about the event is the clear exercise of what I dub the "skyjacker's leverage" -- one man pulling out a pistol in a crowded airplane. You don't argue with what he tells the pilot. What Sen. Jeffords did, holding the one critical vote, was an act of consummate democratic infidelity. It is one thing to cross the aisle to plead your case for association with the other political party, building that case and aiming to seek validation in a general election. Jeffords didn't do that. He coasted along as a Republican without any significant complaint before, during and after Bush was nominated and elected.

Then the histrionic challenge loomed. Whee! Jim Jeffords has the power to reorient the entire political composition of the U.S. Senate, with changes in the leadership of committees that preside over health, defense, human services and justice. A man of greater moral responsibility would have declined self-gratification of this kind: submitting his case to deliberative democratic processes; giving his own constituents an opportunity to weigh his case, and others their case; and, indeed, the president, his.

But the story told us nothing more than that to some people temptations are, if not irresistible, irresistible to the second-class among them. "Those who don't know me may have thought I enjoyed the limelight," he said in his press conference. "Nothing could be further from the truth." Jim Jeffords just hates the limelight, but good, brave, loyal soldier that he is, he'll just put up with it, in the service of his ego.