Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont is now officially an Independent. Unified government under Republican control for the first time in nearly 50 years lasted a few days more than four months. Exercising more power than he will ever have as a senator of either party, Jeffords changed the results of the last election by allowing Democrats to gain control of the Senate. Jeffords allows liberals like Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Carl Levin of Michigan to become committee chairmen without the consent of the public, who have consistently rejected liberal ideology in recent elections.
The Jeffords defection puts President Bush ("43") in the same dangerous situation his father faced when the former president Bush ("41") failed to appreciate the hardball politics of then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine. It was Mitchell who blocked every important legislative initiative from that earlier administration because Democrats wanted to win the White House in 1992. They did.
Bush "43" can forget about reshaping the Supreme Court in a more conservative (that is to say, constitutional) image. He should not be too confident that conservative nominees for any position awaiting confirmation will get anywhere unless they pledge to act like Democrats.
There are plenty of people to blame for the debacle that has put Democrats in the majority for the first time since 1996, starting with the political novices who thought they could "punish" Jeffords because of his refusal to vote for the Bush budget. Jeffords was not invited to the White House for ceremonies honoring a Vermont teacher. There was also talk among some Republicans of further punishing Jeffords by canceling dairy support benefits, which go to farmers in Vermont and throughout the Northeast. You can do that with a solid majority but not when the Senate is divided 50-50. The White House denies any plans to punish Jeffords but no one believes it.
The soon-to-be former Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, should have seen this coming. Lott will almost certainly be challenged for the minority leader position by those who believe he has been too accommodating to Democrats. His civility will not be reciprocated. It never is when Democrats are in charge. If Lott's head rolls, many will also blame him for the loss of four GOP Senate seats in the last election, for which there was no excuse. Had the GOP maintained a solid majority, Jeffords probably would not have defected and, if he had, it would have made no difference.
President Bush is faced with a difficult decision. Should he continue his charm offensive, with its emphasis on "changing the tone" in Washington, or is it time to play rough? Bush "41" tried to be nice to Democrats, extending the hand of cooperation to Mitchell and then-House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas. They bit it off. Democrats play to win. Republicans play to be liked. That dynamic had better change or the next united government Republicans see will be a House and Senate united under Democratic leaders in next year's election and a White House re-captured by Democrats in 2004, repeating the one-term wonder experience of Bush "41."
Campaigning is now year-around. Democrats are running energy commercials in California, ludicrously blaming Republicans for high gas prices. Polls suggest they are also making inroads with their claims that big oil is running the White House. So far, Republican responses have been tepid and ineffective.
Republicans clearly face a political energy crisis. Have they run out of gas?
Democrats always have an advantage over Republicans in that they never lose sight of their goal. Democrats don't care about civility. They care about winning and then doing something with the power they've won to advance their left-wing agenda. Democrats do whatever it takes to win, no matter how long it takes. Republicans do whatever it takes to be liked, and waste time trying to prove they are not what Democrats say they are.
Senate Democrats will now tie-up every important Bush legislative initiative and block conservative court and agency nominees. Then, with the help of their ideological buddies in the big media, they will blame Bush and the Republicans for gridlock. Their aim is to re-take the Senate and House next year and the White House in 2004. What is the Republican aim and how do they intend to hit their target? Certainly not with guns loaded with civility, the ideological equivalent of blanks, while the Democrats are firing rhetorical bullets.
Cal Thomas writes for Tribune Media Services.
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