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"Do you consider yourself a liberal?"

In Washington, all politics is personality. Or so it often seems. After the Jim Jeffords jump, the media zoomed in on Senator John McCain and breathlessly penned a new chapter in the Bush-McCain psychodrama. Look, McCain is hosting Tom Daschle at his weekend home in Arizona! Is he about to bolt the GOP? McCain pals, including pundit/publisher/political strategist William Kristol, are meeting to ponder the possibilities of an independent McCain presidential run! Slap the news on the front page!

Ever since Bush whupped McCain in the GOP primaries, the will-he, won't-he game hasn't ceased--although McCain repeatedly pledges fealty to party and dismisses talk of a 2004 bid. But each denial stokes speculation, and much of the accompanying chatter has concentrated on McCain's ego. He can't get over being beaten by a putz. He still resents the dirty tricks pulled by Bush backers. He'll do anything to get on TV. No doubt McCain, like most pols, is driven by personal concerns. During the 2000 contest, he fell in love with leading what he considered (accurately or not) a grassroots movement for reform. Armchair psychology: It was as if McCain believed he was finally the hero he had long been portrayed to be by others. In McCain's mind, his Vietnam story--shot down and taken prisoner, refusing an early release as an admiral's son, then breaking under torture and signing a confession declaring himself a "black criminal" and attempting suicide--is not a heroic tale. "I failed," he once told an interviewer. Clearly, McCain was happy to develop a hero-through-politics narrative.

It's intriguing that McCain is trying to keep this story line alive, not only by hinting and then denying he'll go indy but by adopting a set of stands that are left of center, by conventional reckoning. The McCain soap opera isn't only about ambition and recovered heroism; it's full of policy subplots. McCain has joined Democrats Ted Kennedy and John Edwards to push a patients' bill of rights opposed by the White House, and he has also joined Democrat Joe Lieberman to offer legislation to tighten a gun-show loophole. With Democrat Russ Feingold, he pushed a modest, if problematic, campaign reform bill through the Senate over GOP objections. He even whacked Bush for abandoning the Kyoto global-warming treaty. During debate on the tax bill, he offered an amendment to scale back the tax cut for the wealthiest (the measure lost on a tie vote). Then he was one of two Republicans to vote against the bill. Not even hero-to-Democrats Jim Jeffords did that. (Jeffords had the power to gum up the relieve-the-rich tax bill, yet chose not to.)

McCain has developed a quirky agenda with a liberal leaning. He remains hawkish; he is still officially antichoice. But he's either using the prospect of a move to independence (and the attention that brings him) to push this non-Republican platform or exploiting this non-Republican platform (and the attention that brings him) to create the opportunity for a move to independence. Perhaps both. In any event, it's an encouraging development for Democrats, who, prior to the Jeffords jump, were unable to put forward much of their own message. In a closely divided Senate, a McCain in the spotlight can help them on several key fronts.

The odd sideshow here is Kristol. His associates say he has embraced McCain as a Teddy Roosevelt figure who can champion the somewhat vague but bombastic "national greatness" conservatism Kristol advocates. But McCain's acts of apostasy involve small steps to the left. Does Kristol, who was instrumental in smothering HillaryCare, really crave a strong patients' bill of rights?

McCain's latest shuffles probably bolster the Democrats more than his presidential ambitions. He'd have a tough time fully repudiating Bush and the GOP. At the Republican convention--only ten months ago--McCain said, "If you believe patriotism is more than a soundbite and public service should be more than a photo-op, then vote for Governor Bush.... I know that by supporting George W. Bush, I serve my country well." Can Mr. Straight-Talk Express renounce that statement and not seem an opportunistic crybaby? It's not as if Bush has veered from his campaign positions. To justify an exit from the party, McCain would have to proclaim: I've seen the light--Bush and the Republicans are wrong; I was wrong to support them, and it's time for me to go. Such talk might be too straight to utter. In the meantime, McCain--ambition-driven or policy-driven--has figured out how to do what many Democrats (paging Al Gore) have not: discomfit Bush, shape debates and advance a few policies that tilt left.

How much does the White House stand to save from Bush's tax cut?

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.

Austin

Oh, sure, blame it on Texas. It's all our fault Jim Jeffords walked. Many, many people in Washington are assuming "the Texans" in the White House are responsible for this massive screw-up. Whereas everybody in political Austin assumes it. It's often hard to discern the difference between Texas Tough and Texas Stupid.

"What do we do now?" That famous last line of the 1972 film The Candidate, in which Robert Redford finds himself--to his surprise--elected to the Senate, should be on the minds of Senate Democrats, now that Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont has abandoned the GOP for independent-hood and an alliance with the Dems. It took a moderate--a dying breed in the Republican Party--to thrust Tom Daschle & Co. into control of half of Congress. That should mean the end of Bush's relatively--and unexpectedly--easy ride in Washington. With such a change, the Democrats' leaders will no longer be able to wring their hands and plead minority status when they lose legislative battles, such as the fight over the relieve-the-rich tax cut. The party will gain the (theoretical) ability to strike down the Bush agenda and deny him his more extreme appointees--to speak for the majority of voters who said no to Bush. All this is possible, that is, if the Democrats can mount a unified opposition. A big if, since several Senate Dems have been happy to work with Bush on taxes and other measures. The Jeffords switch doesn't change that dynamic. After all, a dozen Senate Dems ended up voting for the Reaganesque tax cut.

There is much the party can do with the Senate in its hands. Ever since the Republicans took over Congress after the 1994 election, the Democrats have tried to beat up the party of Gingrich on kitchen-table issues, including healthcare, prescription drugs, education and wages. With an edge in the Senate, Democrats have the chance to pass uncompromising legislation on several fronts: a strong patient bill of rights, expansions in health insurance to cover those not covered, a minimum-wage boost free of tax breaks for corporations. These bills would likely be shot down by the Republicans in the House and President Bush. But this could show that the Democrats do stand for something and create a record of difference useful for the party in the elections of 2002 and 2004. The last time the Democrats were in charge of Congress, they passed a modest Family and Medical Leave Act, Bush the Elder vetoed it, and a very effective campaign issue was handed to candidate Bill Clinton.

The Democrats have picked up the power of subpoena. There are many topics worthy of its use. Oil company price-gouging. Electric utilities price-gouging. Pharmaceutical companies price-gouging. Perhaps an inquiry into the recent fundraiser at the Vice President's home. (Oh, sorry, the Republicans claim it was just a "thank you" to financial supporters, not a fundraiser.) The Democrats are free to host high-profile hearings to counter Bush's bully pulpit and to advance their own ideas. Imagine hearings on victims of arsenic poisoning. Or on the dangers of nuclear waste disposal. Or on the plight of older Americans who can't afford medicine. Or on renewable-energy alternatives to increased oil drilling.

The Jeffords move, perhaps partly caused by heavy-handed Bush/GOP tactics, including threats made against dairy price supports for Vermont farmers, shows that the Republicans have a hard time being anything other than a party of the right. Yet Senator Zell Miller--the conservative Democrat of Georgia and number-one target for GOP defector-hunters--could in a similar way inconvenience the Democrats, although he has twice said he wouldn't join the party with which he regularly votes. And a Jeffords jump is not the end but the beginning of the intrigue. GOPers will be trawling for other Democratic cross-dressers besides Miller (and making sure that at least one senior citizen, Strom Thurmond, has ready access to prescription drugs). Senator Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, ought to be sweating even more. He's being investigated on a number of matters--deservedly so, it appears--but now the Republicans have even more incentive to nail him.

That one Yankee could so upset the balance in Washington--and so discomfit the Bush advance--illuminates not only how divided are forces in the capital but how much opportunity exists for the Democrats, should they be able to act like a party of principles.

"What do we do now?" That famous last line of the 1972 film The Candidate, in which Robert Redford finds himself--to his surprise--elected to the Senate, should be on the minds of Senate De

As he goes, so goes the Senate.

He's an archconservative who thinks big and knows how to get things done.

As thousands of blacks registered, the state threw many others off the rolls.

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