Editorial: Jeffords was a maverick who mattered
The glare of a single moment can obscure a life. To find examples, politics in Northern New England is as good a place to start as any.
If Ed Muskie of Maine is remembered at all outside of his home state, it’s for his tearful (or was it just melting snow?) rebuke of William Loeb outside the Union Leader building in 1972. Never mind that Muskie was among the most prominent leaders of the Democratic Party during the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s.
Beyond New Hampshire’s borders, it’s a good bet that former White House chief of staff John H. Sununu is known more for his 1991 junket to a rare stamp auction in New York City than for any of his public service accomplishments.
Then there is Jim Jeffords, the former Vermont senator who died on Monday at age 80. His memorable moment in 2001 turned Washington upside down.
The Senate had emerged from the election of 2000 deadlocked at 50-50, which meant that Vice President Dick Cheney owned the deciding vote. But thanks to Jeffords, that arrangement didn’t last long.
On May 24, 2001, the lifelong Republican held a press conference at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington, Vt., to announce to the public what he had already told Democratic and Republican party leaders two days earlier: “In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent.”
His decision to caucus with the Democrats elevated South Dakota’s Tom Daschle to Senate majority leader and reduced Trent Lott, who along with Jeffords made up half of the Singing Senators barbershop quartet, to embittered minority leader. It also dealt a severe blow to Bush’s legislative agenda.
There are few moments in recent American political history that had the immediate impact of Jeffords’s decision. He became a hero to Democrats, though he resisted joining the party, while Republicans branded him a turncoat who damaged the party to further his own self interest.
But beyond the glare of that single moment, it becomes clear that more than anything, Jeffords was that rarest of Washington creatures: the truly independent politician.
In fact, viewed through the lens of his political life, Jeffords’s bombshell was hardly a surprise at all.
The strain between politician and party began in earnest in 1972, when Jeffords ran for governor but lost to the establishment pick in the primary.
“Ever since 1972, Jim Jeffords has been at war with the Republican Party,” John McClaughry of Vermont’s Ethan Allen Institute told the Burlington Free Press for a 2006 article. “I don’t think he’s a bad person, but the blight on his own career from 1972 was something he was unable to get over.”
Two years later, Jeffords was elected to the House and began his 30-year career as a Washington maverick, which included lonely fights against Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts, Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
In order for history to do Jim Jeffords justice, it must note not only that defining moment in 2001 but also the spirit of independence that led to the decision.
Washington could always use a few more men and women who are guided by their consciences. That is Jeffords’s legacy.