May 24, 2001

Jim Jeffords today completely altered the political landscape in Washington by announcing that he was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent and that he will be voting with the Democratic caucus on organizational matters.

Jeffords says that any more he finds himself disagreeing with the GOP much more than he agrees with it. Like Lowell Weicker before him, his complaint is that the change is with the party, not with him. That the party founded by Lincoln and by Jeffords’ forebears has changed beyond recognition.

I know the feeling.

My father grew up in the Solid South of Yellow Dog Democrats. He had just about zero interest in politics until Barry Goldwater came along, preaching a doctrine of resistance to communism, resistance to big government, and resistance to the whittling away of personal freedoms. He was from that time forward an ardent Republican.

Unlike my dad, I grew up reading the National Review and watching Firing Line and seeing Bill Buckley duke it out with Gore Vidal at the 1968 GOP convention. In 1972, when I was 14, I handed out – God help me – Nixon-Agnew buttons. In 1976, when I was 18, I cast my vote in a presidential election – for Gerald Ford. In 1980 I was more taken with Bush but I voted for Reagan anyway – and I was thrilled that the GOP won the Senate – the first time in my life that both houses of Congress hadn’t been dominated by the Democratic Party.

In 1984 I voted for Reagan again but somewhere between the first and the second election I began to have doubts. One day I was driving out to the beach and I saw a man, a woman, and a couple of kids standing at the foot of the three-mile bridge across Pensacola Bay. I couldn’t quite figure it out at first – what were they doing? And then it hit me: They were hitch hiking!

I was a teenager in the 70s, I’d seen plenty of hitchers in my time, but I’d never seen a whole family hitching. And then the next part gelled – they were hitching because they didn’t have any place else to go. They were obviously homeless. And even though I’d seen the occasional "bum" or runaway, I’d never actually seen a homeless family before.

I was appalled.

"This isn’t what it’s supposed to be about," I thought to myself. "It’s not about putting families on the street."

And it just got worse.

Until Reagan and company came along, I thought Republicanism was about fiscal restraint. Until Reagan unleashed the Religious Right, I thought Republicanism was about keeping government OUT of our personal lives. Until Bush the First sold his soul to Jerry Falwell and company, I thought there was some hope that the party would come to its senses.

In 1988 I liked Al Gore but his candidacy went nowhere. I held my nose and voted for Michael Dukakis, even after that disgraceful debate. I had a brief moment of optimism when Bush was first inaugurated – he at least made some effort to restore fiscal responsibility. But it was also pretty clear that he would tell the Fundies whatever they wanted to hear.

Paul Tsongas was my kind of guy. He seemed genuinely devoted to fiscal responsibility AND social justice issues. As for Clinton, my original perception was that he was a Democratic version of Bush – committed first and foremost to getting himself elected. Eventually Clinton began to enunciate the social justice themes – themes I think he really believes in – and by the time he was elected I was an enthusiastic supporter.

At the very beginning of his term I thought, "at last, someone who really gets it." Clinton was committed to healthcare, he was committed to fiscal responsibility, he was committed to openness and inclusivity. His embrace of the gay/lesbian community probably played a role in the coming out of many gay / lesbian people, me included.

The disappointments weren’t long in coming. I forgave Clinton for wimping out on Gays In the Military; I thought Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was the result of a mistaken faith in compromise and consensus politics but how to explain signing the Defense of Marriage Act? It was craven political opportunism, nothing more.

As for 2000…

Clinton couldn’t keep his zipper up but even so his administration proved that Democrats can be fiscally responsible stewards of the economy and government spending. Likewise, that even though there was a whole lot of waffling whenever Clinton’s power was at stake, his administration showed that it was possible for Washington to have a positive influence in people’s lives, especially for those who previously had been consigned to the sidelines.

Meanwhile, the GOP had its six-year shot at running Congress and the results were pretty dismal. They made it clear that the Reaganite addiction to deficit spending hadn’t gone away. Likewise, the idea circulated under Bush the First -- that elected Republicans weren't really social neanderthals, they just talked that way to make movement conservatives happy -- was revealed to be a bunch of hooey once Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, Bob Barr, Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell were in the driver's seat over on Capitol Hill.

The wonder of the 2000 election is that both Al and Shrub ran as something other than they were. Al seemed to think needed to run as Harry Truman, out there persuading the little people that he would protect them from the Big Interests who were ought there trying to undermine everyone’s having a Fair Deal. Which is more than a little bizarre considering how happy people were with The Way Things Were.

Shrub, on the other hand, managed to convince half the electorate that he was really a moderate just like everyone else and that he had no interest in messing with The Way Things Were – despite the fact that the cronies who do ALL of his thinking are movement conservatives intent on establishing their own New World Order.

In the best of all possible worlds the rest of Jeffords’ moderate colleagues would follow his example. Maybe they could start a third party in Congress. It would interesting to see a Senate led by a coalition of Democrats and people who are definitely not Republicans but not really Democrats either.

We can only hope.


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