New England GOPers Found in Prairie Dems' Big Tent
Jumpin' Jeffords

Vermont senator Jim Jeffords's defection from the Republican Party is tonic because it brings back memories of Margaret Chase Smith, the heroine of New England's idiosyncratic politicians: honest, sensible, often penurious, stubbornly independent, on occasion loony, but above all, not the ideological turkeys of today's conservative movement.

Smith, a former high school teacher, was the first woman elected to both houses of Congress. She had worked as secretary to her husband, a Republican House member from Maine, and when he died of a heart attack in 1940, she took his seat and gained great popularity. Smith braved the isolationism of the pre-World War II era to support the draft. She also supported Roosevelt's New Deal. Serving on the Armed Services Committee, she successfully pushed for improved conditions and equal pay for women. Elected to the Senate in 1948, she became the first Republican in that chamber to condemn Joseph McCarthy's commie witch-hunts.

This is where Jeffords gets his spine. And his origins go back to a time when the Republican Party, launched in 1854 to fight slavery, was still decent.

Unlike the Connecticut Bushes, always sniffing the wind for a trend to which they could attach themselves, early Republican blue bloods stood on their own. Teddy Roosevelt quit the Republicans to launch the Bull Moose movement. While the vast majority of Congressional Democrats and Republicans followed LBJ spaniel-like into the swamps of Vietnam, Vermont senator George Aiken stood against the war. Moderate Republicans, led by the black Massachusetts senator Edward Brooke, fought for civil rights in the 1960s. They also supported Medicare.

Jeffords backed Clinton's health bill in 1993 and helped reduce Bush's nutso $1.6 trillion tax cut. He has supported gays and lesbians and won the backing of the Human Rights Campaign in his last election. In quitting the party he minced no words: "Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I'll disagree with the president on very fundamental issues—the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues, large and small."

If Jeffords is lumped together with three other New England conservatives—Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island—a potential middle-of-the-road bloc emerges. As the Washington Monthly, which carried a lengthy, excellent article in the May issue, observes, "Fiscally conservative, socially tolerant, moderately internationalist, generally pro-environment, tough on crime, and hungry for good government, the Mod Squad, as they like to call themselves, has the power to reshape the agenda in Washington."

Though close to Bush, Snowe opposes the White House plan to drill in the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and she has warned the president he faces "a 500-year flood" in political terms, adding, "There must be changes. We have to really reflect very seriously as to why this happened and why we lost a good person like Jim Jeffords."

Yet the current shift remains tenuous. For just as Jeffords left the party to let the Dems gain control, that control could tilt back if campaign finance irregularities force New Jersey Democratic senator Bob Torricelli to resign, allowing the GOP governor to appoint a Republican. Or as has often been rumored, John Breaux, the Bush-loving Dem from Louisiana, could switch parties.

Shoved aside by the Democratic South Dakota senator Tom Daschle, the ghastly Southern opportunists and their technocratic Democratic Leadership Council are out, at least temporarily, and, one can hope, forever. If the donkey party can regain control of the House in 2002, a solid possibility, Midwesterners Dick Gephardt and David Bonior will wield real power. The prairie Dems and the New England Republicans might find themselves making a common cause.

Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz and Adam Gray

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