by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
August 21, 2014
JIM JEFFORDS: LAST OF THE MODERATE REPUBLICANS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In the obituaries that came out after the death of former U.S. Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont at age 80 on Aug. 18, nearly all focused upon the act that defined his long political career: his decision in May 2001 to leave the Republican Party and become an independent.
It was a move that was, on the surface, uncharacteristic. Jeffords had long had a reputation for being a low-profile politician who rarely strayed from the middle of the road on most issues.
But he departed the GOP in a move that had more to do with his political principles than personal hubris.
"I was not elected to this office to be something I am not," Jeffords said at the time in his formal announcement, invoking the names of Republicans who preceded him as Vermont's senators - men such as Ernest Gibson, Ralph Flanders, Robert Stafford and the great George Aiken.
Those names represent a Republican Party that no longer exists - a party of moderation, common sense and a desire to put the needs of Vermonters ahead of partisan politics.
Gibson's career in the Senate was short, but as governor in the years after the end of World War II, he helped to begin the transformation of Vermont from forgotten backwater into a progressive state.
Flanders was the among the first senators to take on Joe McCarthy and his reckless witch hunt for alleged communists in the government.
Aiken served six terms in the Senate and was the man who helped create the School Lunch Program and the St. Lawrence Seaway. He was also ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years.
If you are a college student, you've heard of Stafford - he was the senator who created the low-interest government loan program that bears his name. Jeffords would ultimately succeed Stafford in the Senate in 1988.
What all these men had in common besides being Republicans was that they voted their consciences rather than the party line. Often, that meant they ran counter to the GOP's stance on many issues.
But in the end, they did what was best for Vermont rather than what was best for the party. That political philosophy that has long been part of the Vermont tradition.
In his long career in public life, Jeffords distinguished himself as an environmentalist. In the Vermont Legislature, he helped push through a ban on billboards in the state, the "Bottle Bill" that required deposits on beverage containers. and Act 250, the state's landmark land-use law that preserved our landscape. As a U.S. Senator, he helped secure passage of the Clean Air Act of 1990.
One of the first pieces of legislation he co-authored when he was elected to Congress in 1974 was what ultimately became the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which opened public schools to pupils with physical or mental disabilities. He also helped negotiate the Northeast Dairy Compact, which helped save dairy farms in Vermont and the rest of New England.
Jeffords wasn't afraid to buck his party's leaders and vote the way his constituents wanted. He was the only Republican to vote against the Reagan tax cuts in 1981, and voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001. He voted against Clarence Thomas'es nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991. He supported the Clinton health-care plan and opposed then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." He was was one of only five RepublIcan Senators who voted against President Clinton's impeachment in 1999.
And, in 2003, Jeffords joined fellow members of the Vermont Congressional delegation, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, in voting against the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq, making Vermont the only delegation unanimously opposed to the war.
In short, Jeffords was principled and independent, and Jeffords' decision to leave the GOP was in keeping with that tradition. He had battled with the Bush Administration over education funding, particularly the federal government's commitments to special education, and sided with Senate Democrats in supporting for a $1.35-trillion tax cut package that year - a smaller one than the $1.6-trillion that Bush sought.
The Bush Administration saw Jeffords' action as an affront to their agenda, and word went out that Jeffords was going to be punished for straying from the party line. With a bit more tact, Jeffords might have been persuaded to stay. Instead, back-room talk of "payback" forced Jeffords to re-examine the place of a New England moderate in a party dominated by Sun Belt conservatives.
The Bush Administration's desire to maintain party discipline ultimately cost them control of the Senate for the remainder of 2001 and 2002. Despite the anguished cries from the conservative chattering class at the time, most people in Vermont supported his decision.
Jeffords has long been a popular politician in this state, and had he chosen to run for another term in 2006, he would easily have won.
But his health failed him, and he reluctantly retired from the Senate. Sadly, an Alzheimer's diagnosis and the death of his wife, Liz, in 2007 robbed him of a happy retirement. He spent his final years in the Knollwood Military Retirement Residence in Washington, D.C.
Jim Jeffords' death is another reminder of how far to the right the Republican Party as shifted. The moderate Republican is a virtually extinct species, driven out by the Tea Party extremists and Christian fundamentalists.
As a nation, we are more polarized today than at any time since the Civil War. And the politicians like Jeffords, who bridged ideological divides and put the needs of the people ahead of theirn party, are few and far between.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A .from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.