Vermont, as John Kenneth Galbraith once observed, is the only state in the union represented in Congress by a Democrat, a Republican and a Socialist, who all vote more or less alike (that is, liberal). Scratch the Republican label, otherwise his point holds. This small state of delicious anachronisms has once again worked its magic on the leaden cynicism of big-time power politics. Let’s hear it for Vermonters, who send people of distinctive quality to speak for them in Washington.
And let’s hear it for Jim Jeffords and his truth-telling. The larger meaning of his defection is that, in a single stroke, he cut through the smoke and spin manufactured by Bush’s White House to obscure the radical nature of its right-wing agenda and rang the gong on those media suck-ups who compliantly portrayed this new President as the moderate middle. The senator’s action even obliquely rebuked Democrats for the limpness of their opposition. Thus, Jeffords effectively resolved the dissonance between the establishment version of business as usual in Washington and what citizens at large are perceiving with growing alarm and anger. People distant from Washington, it turns out, were not wrong about Bush. Thanks, Senator, for blowing his cover.
The governing classes should rather quickly digest the truth of what Jeffords was telling them, starting with Bush but including Democratic leaders. If the President is a more formidable character than we assume, he will take seriously the senator’s warning that he is on track to become a one-term President like his father. He might begin by looking close around him, assigning blame and getting real distance from his lousy counselors. Karl Rove, the political adviser mentored by the late Lee Atwater, embodies hard-right arrogance and small-town, get-even tactics–an approach regularly expressed for him by the Wall Street Journal‘s hit man, columnist Paul Gigot, who in April urged the White House to “get even privately” with Jeffords for his mild dissents on tax cuts and education. The Senate GOP leader, Trent Lott, comes from the same school. His crude manipulations of regular order–firing the Senate parliamentarian, pocketing the campaign finance bill after the Senate passed it–reflect the cynicism of one-party rule found in Mississippi and originally practiced by segregation Democrats. Bush needs new eyes and ears in Congress–people who understand that this representative institution is bigger than the Sunbelt.
George W. is further endangered by his adolescent dependence on Vice President Cheney, a 1970s politician whose grasp of present issues like energy and the environment is not only tone-deaf to public attitudes but so outdated that even leading industrialists admit his remedies are wrongheaded. In short, without a major shift in strategic direction the Bush presidency is in long-term trouble, too deep for the usual cosmetics. We doubt he is up to it, even if he recognizes the danger.
Democrats, meanwhile, have the chance to make themselves over–if they will shake off the accommodationist mush, recognize they are engaged in a deadly fight over the future and appreciate that the abrupt Senate makeover challenges them to be as bold as Jeffords. Thanks to him, the new majority has been given critical leverage: the ability to block the right wing’s capture of the federal judiciary, the platform to launch a fresh activist legislative agenda and an opening to begin the hard politics of canceling major portions of Bush’s just-enacted tax-cut boodle. Democrats can stall and dilute and even kill the right’s agenda, but they do not have the power to legislate. What they do have is the luxury of testing new frontiers–advancing an agenda of big ideas that can be long-term winners, forcing this conservative President and his right-wing camp followers to block them or run for cover. Big ideas mean taking risks, of course, but they would begin to reconnect the party with its own tattered ideals and neglected constituencies: Universal health insurance and a step-by-step plan to achieve it, starting at the state level. Challenging market power with renewed inquiry into whether antitrust doctrine really protects the small but vital elements of enterprise from monopolistic domination. The deteriorated condition of work and wages, not only for the working poor but across a broad spectrum of occupations. The inequity of the tax code, as explored from the ground up.
The alternative–more of the same–means piddling along halfheartedly with too-cute positions that are easily rolled by a dedicated opposition. The Democrats’ sorry debacle in the tax-cut debate should have taught them that they don’t win by going halfway toward the right’s zealotry–they merely lose bigger. Ambitious politics can set the stage for more ambitious governing. The Jeffords message, in that sense, is threatening to both parties–another invitation to independent figures, from Jesse Ventura to John McCain, to step clear of tired party labels and truly upend the status quo.
We don’t wish to overinterpret the import of one politician’s change of heart. The Senate remains composed of the same 100 men and women who enacted Bush’s reactionary comfort-the-wealthy tax bill and who will no doubt enact other odious measures, with the assistance of turncoat Democrats. Still, the poetic drama–an obscure and diffident senator from a very small state shocking the system with truth-telling–does renew our sense of hopefulness. The conservative hegemony is living on borrowed time. Right-wing nostrums are no longer convincing to most people, but they’re not yet challenged by an aggressive progressive agenda, and an alternative vision has yet to find a confident voice. Our optimism may still sound premature, but the boldness of Senator Jeffords encourages us to believe that things really are changing–perhaps changing faster than the rest of Washington understands.