Party Pooper

Jim Jeffords is the sexy librarian of the Senate. For years, colleagues and reporters passed Jeffords in the hall with little notice. The Vermont Republican was reserved, mousy, and easy to miss. Then, earlier this month, Jeffords underwent a stunning transformation. He took off his glasses, unpinned his hair, and started talking about party swapping. Suddenly Jeffords was the most popular senator in Washington. Everyone seemed to find him irresistibly attractive. You could hear the wolf whistles.

Democrats whispered tempting come-ons, wooing him with the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Republicans showered Jeffords with similar propositions: a leadership position and more money for his favorite education programs. President Bush invited Jeffords over to his place.

Ultimately, the man from Vermont walked out on his old party and hooked up with the Democrats. Washington was shocked. If politics were a church, Jeffords would be the priest who runs off to Aruba with his organist. In a moment, everything was different. Tom Daschle was going to become majority leader. Ted Kennedy was on his way to the chairmanship of the Education committee. Most significant, the Republicans would have to give up the bigger majority lunchroom for the smaller, less impressive minority lunchroom.

Asked about his behavior, Jeffords offered the unfaithful’s stock excuse: You never appreciated me. I’m a moderate. In the increasingly conservative GOP, it’s hard to be a moderate. In other words: I didn’t leave my party. My party left me.

If you feel like you’ve heard this before, you have. All defectors say it, Republicans and Democrats. Sometimes it’s true; sometimes it’s not. In the case of Jim Jeffords, it’s ridiculous. Moderates in the Senate have never had more power. In a body that’s (until Jeffords’s switch) evenly divided, every senator has juice. The senators who are most likely to vote against their own party have the most juice. Before he became an Independent, Jeffords was probably more powerful than Jesse Helms.

Then why did Jeffords leave? The conventional explanation is that he was snubbed by the White House. This, too, is a stock line. When Billy Tauzin dumped the Democratic Party for the GOP in 1995, he was still talking bitterly about how Clinton had misled him on the details of the BTU tax two years before. Senator Richard Shelby is said to have become a Republican in 1994 partly because the Clinton White House had refused to give him extra tickets to a reception for the University of Alabama football team.

Jeffords’s supporters told similar horror stories: The White House hadn’t solicited Jeffords’s opinion often enough on the education bill. The administration wasn’t vigorous enough in its support of Jeffords’s beloved milk subsidies. The president was snippy with Jeffords in a meeting. And, most commonly recounted of all, the Bush people hadn’t invited Jeffords to a White House event honoring a social-studies teacher. The teacher was from Vermont.

It’s hard to believe that picayune events like these could prompt a person to single-handedly transfer the balance of power. More likely, Jeffords acted on other motives, all of them every bit as pedestrian as pique: No reason not to; it feels good; better now than later.

Despite his claims, Jeffords wasn’t so much a moderate as a liberal. He didn’t diverge from Republican orthodoxy. He disagreed with it. During fourteen years in the House, Jeffords voted with the Democratic caucus more than any other Republican. In the Senate, he came out for the Clinton health-care plan before he even knew what it contained. Jeffords campaigned for Bush in 2000, but the two never agreed on much. Jeffords could, and probably should, have left the Republican Party long before he did.

On the other hand, the switch probably wouldn’t have felt as good if he’d done it earlier – that is, before his fellow Republicans begged him not to. Jeffords seemed proud to announce his defection from a hotel ballroom in Vermont. He isn’t a great speaker – his voice quakes – but Jeffords made up for it with self-satisfaction. Here is a man, he said of himself, who embodies the history and traditions of Vermont – against slavery and McCarthyism, for flinty freethinking and ornery common sense. In a word, Independent. “Thank you, Jim! Thank you, Jim!” shouted the crowd. Jeffords looked thrilled, in a restrained Yankee way.

There’s a third reason Jeffords may have wanted to bolt the GOP at this moment: timing. If 98-year-old Strom Thurmond were to die, and the Senate reverted to the Democrats, Jeffords the Republican would get nothing.

He’d remain a mousy second bencher from a sparsely populated New England state. Instead, as the man who handed the Democrats the Senate, he is rewarded, and not just with a nationally televised press conference. Jeffords will be the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Five years from now, Jeffords may look back and conclude he did a savvy thing by becoming an Independent. Or he may not. Defecting, as lonely Kim Philby learned, often ends badly.

Two years ago, strategists on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began trying to persuade Representative Mike Forbes, a three-term Republican from Long Island, to switch parties. Forbes did. It was a disaster. His entire staff immediately quit. His wife, a staunch Republican, got mad at him. A prominent Democrat from his district announced a challenge. Most poignant of all, Forbes had the misfortune of making his defection speech on the same day John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane went down off Martha’s Vineyard. The press all but ignored him. Many in his new party shunned him. Last year, Forbes lost his seat.

The same month Mike Forbes bolted the GOP, another East Coast Republican left the party. Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire announced he was going to run for president as an Independent. Unlike Mike Forbes, who had complained that moderates like himself were unwelcome in the Republican Party, Smith said he was leaving because the moderates were too powerful. At first, Smith had high hopes for his candidacy. “I think young people are going to be joining this campaign by the millions,” he told me at the time. For a while, Smith was indeed the front-runner among Independent candidates. (He was also the only Independent candidate.) The millions of young people never showed up. In the end, Smith came crawling back to the GOP. His colleagues welcomed him. They had to. With the Senate divided so evenly, an unreliable Republican was better than nothing.

For the moment. This year, Smith is facing a challenge in the Republican primary. Some Republicans in the Senate are supporting Smith’s opponent. Typically, this would be considered a violation of the code of the Senate. But not in Smith’s case. He violated the code first.

Jim Jeffords ought to pay close attention.

Party Pooper