We had a wonderful weekend, hiking, barbecuing, visiting friends, snapping a friendly salute to the flag as it went by on TV or the street so our children would see and absorb the information that we honor the flag in our family, we note the parade that remembers the men and women who have fought for our country in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
Or at least that was the plan. We did some of these things when we weren’t watching TV talk shows about the Democratic Party’s winning of control of the Senate.
We have eased into the new reality. This evening there will be news stories about Jim Jeffords’s first day as an independent. In this clip, he will be cheered by tourists and pose for pictures with a gaggle of them in the Capitol; here he’ll shake hands with a new caucus colleague, who’ll laugh and pat his arm; there he’ll shake his head over the criticism, which he’ll call understandable and surprisingly mild.
We have been through the Jeffords story this way, that way, inside out and upside down. We have absorbed it in the modern way: sitting in front of an electric box that gives us more pictures and factoids than we need. We have separated the wheat-news from the chaff-news and concluded: This is a story that changes everything and nothing. It’s just another few bars in “The Ballad of Blue and Red,” or, less gently, another chapter in “The Battle of Blue and Red.” We are a divided country; it is a divided Congress; it is a divided Senate, which just tilted.
* * *
History is biography. Mr. Jeffords had things he wanted or needed and Mr. Jeffords got them. Others in his position might have experienced themselves as stuck in a frustrating reality. He is a member of the 10% of Republicans in the Senate—10%!—who are liberals. They are sometimes treated like they’re a mere 10%. Sometimes they’re treated as if they’re key, because sometimes they are. But mostly they’re just 10%. To make it worse, the Senate 10% reflects the Republican reality on the ground: Only about 10% of the base is liberal, too.
What a losing position to be in. But Mr. Jeffords didn’t see the muck of reality, he saw rich opportunity. A way to move from obscurity to prominence, from powerlessness to power, from membership of a minority to majority of one, from one voice in a hundred to shaper of destiny, from representative of a silly state to king of a personal power base whose creation puffs up both his state and his standing.
Now was the time to move, before the fate of a Thurmond or Torricelli is settled, and the Senate rearranged by the powers on high. Mr. Jeffords moved, served his own interests, put himself in the history books, and did it all in such a way that those who want to, and there are many, can claim he took the high road of political conviction and not the low road of personal calculation. What a move! His public persona has, in a matter of days, morphed from boring, bland, singing senator who harmonizes with goofy Southerners to that of Lincolnesque leader, the sharp planes of whose face reflect a gritty tradition of New England moral dissent.
What a 10 strike. For Jim Jeffords. Who is in politics by the way. So no one should have been surprised. Everyone should have been calculating that he would do this.
Still, there’s something refreshing when one man grabs history and shakes it up, bends it. It reminds us all of our power, our personal power to change the facts as we walk into the world each day.
* * *
But what a skievy choice. Rather than announce his desire to change parties, resign and run for the Senate again (as few, but some, have done), leaving it up to the voters to accept him or reject him under new colors, he wins office as a Republican six months ago, walks out on his base and party leadership in his state and in Washington, and announces that he had to on principle.
But what principle? His principles survived Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. Couldn’t they survive a George W. Bush whom Mr. Jeffords campaigned for and who has turned out to be a president who has proceeded on exactly the issues he campaigned on? If it was principle, why did Mr. Jeffords reportedly tell Mr. Bush that he is a one-termer? That sounds more like politics, an honorable profession but not a principle itself.
* * *
It changes everything and nothing. It keeps the voting lines and patterns of the Senate the same; Mr. Jeffords voted like a liberal Democrat and will continue to. (Actually it would be in his interests to confound expectations, demonstrate independence and show it’s not personal against Mr. Bush by supporting the president vigorously in the first vote he can. And let’s assume he’ll do what is in his interests!) But it will still take 60 votes to control the Senate and neither side will have them.
So nothing changes. But everything changes. Democrats rule the upper house for the first time in six years; they win back all committee chairmanships and the right to slow, speed and kill legislation.
And they elevate both their stalwarts and their stars to new roles. Ted Kennedy will chair the Labor Committee. And the new Democratic honcho in charge of health-care legislation will be Hillary Clinton. This makes her an activist again. No more the quiet backbencher, saying that “I’m just here to learn.” Now she will be given authority. Now she returns to a position of real power.
You lock the door and she comes in the window, you lock the window and she comes up the floor boards. This is like “Alien”—she lives in Tom Daschle’s stomach. Just as the music gets soft and the scene winds down you hear the wild “Eeek! Eeek!” and she bursts out of Tom and darts through the room.
Mrs. Clinton signaled her new aggression within hours of Mr. Jeffords’s announcement. When the Senate, on Thursday, overwhelmingly confirmed Viet Dinh and Michael Chertoff as assistant attorneys general, Mrs. Clinton cast the only vote against either man. Were her reasons serious, or spiteful? You decide. Both men were lawyers with the Senate Whitewater Committee.
All this is a threat to the Republic. But in a narrow sense it is also a gift to the GOP base, to the party’s hackocracy, to those Republicans on the street who’ve never really been comfortable sitting back and just hoping Mr. Bush will do well. They can now jolt awake with the super charge of adrenaline that only Hillary—Eeek! Eeek!—can give them.
Well, Hillary and Ted.
* * *
Mr. Bush, on the other hand, no longer has to fashion legislation acceptable to a liberal Republican who in the months before he bolted kept telling reporters that it’s just a short walk across the aisle from one side to the other. Mr. Bush has other liberal Republicans to consider and persuade, but one suspects they’ll be less likely to bolt now that Mr. Jeffords has reaped bolting’s main rewards.
And Mr. Bush has something to fight now—the Democratic Senate. He won’t have to spend the 2002 congressional campaign explaining to a not-always-attentive electorate why a president whose party controls Congress is unable to bring dramatic change. Now he can happily rail against “the do-nothing 107th.”
And he’ll have a worthy foe in the endlessly calculating Mr. Daschle, who was as nimble as Mrs. Clinton in taking advantage of the new circumstances, but not with what seemed to be spite. He did his hair up and got made up and went outside among the people and made a speech marking the beginning of his majority leadership. It had the semi-moving anecdotes—“ ‘Give them hope,’ my friend told me before he died”—and semi-graceful grace notes we’ve all become so used to. It almost had a hero in the balcony. Except it wasn’t really like a State of the Union, it was more like the first draft of an inaugural address.