Sen. James Jeffords delivered a short but powerful farewell lecture to the Republican Party Thursday, which party leaders -- the president and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott -- quickly disputed and brushed off. In doing so, it seems to us they perpetuate the misjudgments of which they were accused.
The 67-year-old senator, in announcing with evident regret that he was leaving the party to become an independent, a step whose effect will be to give the Democrats control of the Senate, said he had become a Republican early in life "not because I was born into the party but because of the kind of fundamental principles" he felt it stood for: "moderation, tolerance, fiscal responsibility." The party had strayed from these, he suggested, and perhaps from tolerance most of all.
His Vermont, he said, had sent the Senate a long string of Republicans -- Aiken, Flanders, Prouty, Stafford -- who "spoke their minds, often to the dismay of their party leaders, and did their best to guide the party in the direction ... they believed in. For 26 years in Washington, first in the House and now in the Senate, I have tried to do the same, but I can no longer do so as a Republican. Increasingly I find myself in disagreement with my party. ... Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and ... me to deal with them."
The election of a Republican president made the matter worse, he said, in that there was a presidential agenda to be supported, which "more and more, I find I cannot." He has objected to the president's tax cut on grounds it will leave insufficient funds for aid to education and other purposes, but the likely differences ahead extend to other issues, he said, including abortion policy, "the direction of the judiciary, missile defense (and) energy and the environment."
The president's response was to say during an appearance in Cleveland that, "respectfully, I couldn't disagree more" with either the notion that the party was headed in wrong directions or that it was intolerant of dissent. He said he had presented Congress -- successfully, thus far -- with a "mainstream" program. Lott's response was to describe it as "just a difference ... on issues, and I understand that, and ... wish him well."
But the Jeffords defection raises anew the question of what kind of home this party offers its uncomfortable moderates. Bush and Lott sought to minimize the issue. Sen. John McCain, no particular friend of either man, and himself increasingly a dissenter within the Republican Party, had a less rosy view. For "votes of conscience," he said, Jeffords had been "unfairly targeted for abuse" by "self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty" who need to "learn to respect honorable differences among us ... and recognize that we are a party large enough to accommodate something short of strict unanimity on the issues of the day."
That may be a little overblown, but not all that much, from what we know. The Democrats have their own orthodoxies, dissent from which is punished. But the Republicans have a problem, and loss of the Senate is only a part of it.
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