by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 27, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Vermont Sen. James Jeffords has long had areputation for being a low-profile politician who rarely strays from themiddle of the road on most issues.
That changed on May 24 when he made the most courageous decision ofhis l= ong and distinguished political career -- to leave the Republican Partyand serve out his Senate term as an independent.
Jeffords departed the party without rancor in a move that had moreto do with his political principles than personal hubris.
"I was not elected to this office to be something I am not,"Jeffords sai= d in his formal announcement, invoking the names of Republicanswho preceded= him as Vermont's senators -- men such as Ernest Gibson, RalphFlanders, Geo= rge Aiken and Robert Stafford.
Most Americans don't know the stories behind these four names, but they represent the tradition that Jeffords sought to uphold.
Gibson's career in the Senate was short, but as governor in the years af= ter the end of World War II, he helped to begin the transformation of Vermo= nt from a forgotten backwater into a progressive state. Flanders was the am= ong the first senators to take on Joe McCarthy and his reckless witchhunt f= or alleged communists in the government. Aiken served six terms in the Sena= te and was the man who helped create the School Lunch Program and the St. L= awrence Seaway. If you are a college student, you've hear of Stafford -- he= was the senator who created the low-interest government loan program that bears his name.
What all these men had in common besides being Republicans was thatthey voted their consciences rather than the party line. Often, that meantthey r= an counter to the GOP's stance on many issues. But in the end, theydid what= was best for Vermont rather than what was best for the party. Thatis the p= olitical philosophy that has long been a part of the Vermonttradition.
Bu= t Jeffords' decision to leave the GOP was more than just an actof conscienc= e. It also had a lot to do with the lack of political savvy ofPresident Bus= h's staff.
Jeffords disagreed with the Bush team over education funding,particularl= y the federal government's commitments to special education.That was why he= sided with the Senate Democrats in supporting for a $1.35trillion tax cut package that was smaller than the $1.6 trillion that Bushsought.
The Bush= administration saw Jeffords' action as an affront to theiragenda, and the word went out that Jeffords was going to be punished forstraying from the p= arty line.
Party discipline may be important, but considering that Bush gotvirtuall= y everything he wanted in his tax cut proposal, there didn't seemto be any point in targeting Jeffords -- particularly when he voted withBush on every= thing else in the first weeks of his administration.
With a bit more tact, Jeffords might have been persuaded to stay.Instead= , the back room talk of "hardball" and "payback" forced Jeffords toreexamin= e the place of a New England moderate in a party dominated by SunBelt conse= rvatives. The Bush team's desire to maintain party disciplineultimately co= st them control of the Senate.
Jeffords' switch will slow down the Bush a= genda, but it's notlikely to change it much. Bush has gotten the big tax cu= t and the educationbill he campaigned on; everything after that is gravy fo= r the White House.But perhaps Bush has learned an important lesson -- that when you have adivided government, you don't tick off the people that allow= you to have aworking majority.
Despite the anguished cries of the conservative chattering class,most pe= ople here in Vermont support his decision. Jeffords has long been apopular politician in this state, and he remains so. His action is proof ofEthan Al= len's famous statement about Vermont: "The gods of the hills arenot the god= s of the valley."
Independence is our proudest tradition. From being the firstgovernment i= n the world to outlaw slavery to being the first state to allowgays to marr= y, Vermont has always been a place that isn't afraid to becontrary in the n= ame of liberty and freedom. We don't follow the gods ofthe valley, and neve= r will.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for morethan 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).