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Party Animals By: Lowell Ponte
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, May 30, 2001


POLITICAL PARTIES ARE NOWHERE to be found in the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers disliked them and called them "faction," things that pitted people against one another and fractured politics for no good reason. Even so, political parties emerged while our Republic was in its cradle and have been with us ever since.

Is the defection of Senator James Jeffords from the Republican Party to the claimed status of "Independent" a declaration of principled independence that the Framers of the Constitution would have applauded? Or is it a calculated act of political self-aggrandizement and ego? Or is it another step away from our being a representative democratic republic and towards America becoming a "parliamentary" system of ruling coalitions?

Politicians have switched parties and allegiances many times in American history. Jeffords’ move, however, is the first time that such a switch brought down a "ruling party." Jeffords by his unilateral decision also brought an end to what had been the oldest GOP Senate seat in the nation, held continuously by Republicans for 140 years.

Last November the voters of Vermont elected a Republican to that Senate seat for what they had every reason to believe would be another six years. The incumbent, Mr. Jeffords, had endorsed the Republican nominee George W. Bush. He had said nothing publicly about leaving the Republican Party, despite holding views in many ways different from Mr. Bush’s and from 90 percent of other Republicans nationwide. He ran under the Republican banner and label.

He did not leave the Republican Party, said Senator Jeffords to the press during the week of his defection; the Republican Party had left him by evolving into the party of the South, the West, and the Right.

Jeffords claims to be of an older Republican Party, the Party of Nelson Rockefeller, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, the Republicans began as a party that opposed states’ rights and wanted political power centered in Washington, D.C. Its first president, Mr. Lincoln, imposed military conscription and an income tax on Americans for the first time in history. In its beginning, by contrast, the Democratic Party was the party of states’ rights, individual liberty (except for slaves), small government, Thomas Jefferson, and the West and South.

Those two great political parties are power-seeking entities. As in the Chinese symbol of Taoism, the yin-yang, each of the two parties intertwines with and is shaped by the other. Each tries to position itself where the center of public opinion is and is going, and each adjusts its position to attract marginal supporters of the other side while retaining marginal supporters of its own.

In our centrist politics, this has produced a game of musical chairs. Over decades, the party of the left circles around to become the party of the right, and vice versa.

And in this power dance, both parties seek to add new supporters while retaining old ones. Both parties are in constant metamorphosis and are hard to define. I remember once chatting in Stockholm with Swedish young people bewildered by the seeming power imbalance in American politics. "Think of it this way," I told them. "You are told that we have two major political parties, but in truth we have three – Republicans who are conservative of the liberal tradition of the Enlightenment and American Revolution; Northern Democrats who are essentially socialists allied with narrow groups; and Southern Democrats, who are conservative populists and often vote with Republicans. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was kept in power by single-party-rule Southern segregationist Democrats, never condemned by FDR for their racism."

Since I spoke these words, of course, many Southern Democrat politicians have been replaced by non-racist conservative Republicans. And many of those Southern Democrats who survived depend for their jobs on African-American voters and have moved ideologically far to the Left, some voting like Northeast socialists.

Jeffords claims to trace his values to rock-ribbed Vermont Republicans like the late Senator George Aiken. But Aiken stood in a line of Yankee individualists, Green Mountain Boys who loved independence, low taxes, and self-reliance, not government control and handouts.

"I supported Jim Jeffords every time he ran [over the past 26 years]….and gave money every time," the octogenarian widow of Senator Aiken told The Washington Times in its May 28 issue. "I wouldn’t have contributed [in 1999 and 2000] if I had known he would leave the Republican Party."

Vermont’s Republican Committeeman Skip Vallee has urged "every Republican donor who’s ever given a penny to Jeffords to ask for it back. I’m told that Senator Jeffords has agreed to give back to any donor the money they gave." Just since 1995 Jeffords’ campaigns have received more than $1.8 million from individuals and pro-Republican political action committees.

And there is precedent for this. In 1994, when Alabama Senator Richard Shelby switched from Democrat to Republican he offered to refund donations to any contributor making that request. In total, Shelby reportedly returned to donors about $20,000.

Jeffords tells reporters that by leaving the Republican Party he was reflecting the views of a majority in his state, thereby truly representing them. Vermont, it is true, is an eccentric state where people elected a professing Socialist, Bernie Sanders, as their single Congressman, where the legislature came closer than anywhere else to enacting gay marriage into law, and where people pour tree sap on their breakfast pancakes.

But the first poll done on Jeffords’ departure from the Republican Party, the "Research 2000" survey by WCAX-TV and the Rutland Herald and reported May 25 by Newsmax.com, found that 53 percent – more than half – of Vermont residents said Jeffords should stand for a new election in order to keep his Senate seat as an independent. Three of every five Vermonters polled said they believed personal gain played a part in Jeffords’ jump. Jeffords has not offered to stand for prompt re-election.

And here, too, there is precedent. When Texas Senator Phil Gramm switched his party allegiance from Democrat to Republican, he immediately called for and won a new special election. When Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched from Democrat to Republican, no less a lawmaker than now-incoming Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle declared that the proper and ethical thing for Campbell to do was stand for special re-election immediately – something Daschle has not said of Jeffords.

In our representative democratic republic, who does a Senator serve? Is he or she a party animal who enters political races wearing the colors of a party and who is expected to serve that party? This is how parliamentary democracies work, and their elected lawmakers are expected to show no geographic loyalty to those who voted for them.

The Founders wanted our system to be different. They wanted Members of Congress to represent specific voters in their districts. They would not have looked favorably on, e.g., then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994 seeking re-election from voters in Spokane, Washington, but getting 99.8 percent of all his campaign money from outside his district; if elected with such "foreign" cash, whose interests would he represent?

The Founders wanted Senators chosen not by popular vote but by state legislatures, so that in Washington, D.C., they would truly represent their states. This was replaced by the Constitution’s 17th Amendment imposition of direct election of Senators; it took force on May 31, 1913, only three months after that same year saw the 16th Amendment take effect authorizing a federal income tax. The insanity of 1913 happened after Teddy Roosevelt made his "progressive" 1912 decision that if he could not rule the Republican Party, then he would divide its voters and ruin it. What followed was Democratic rule and Americans conscripted to die in the trench and gas warfare of World War I Europe. Republicans lost razor-thin Senate races in 1998 in Nevada and in 2000 in Washington State because smaller-government-craving GOP voters turned to the Libertarian Party.

Where would Jim Jeffords be if the 17th Amendment never existed? Potentially he would be out of office, for, in the 2000 election, public rage against same-sex "unions" in "liberal" Vermont swept conservative Republican candidates into control of the lower house of the state legislature. Under the original framing of the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 3), these conservative Republicans could unilaterally have denied Jeffords a new term and appointed someone more like themselves to replace him.

It could be argued that if Jeffords won election as a Republican but broke that covenant with voters five months into his new six-year term, the Vermont legislature prior to the 17th Amendment might – at least in theory -- have claimed the power to recall, remove, and replace him immediately. This seems only fair, for we now know that last year Jeffords was already discussing his possible departure from the Republican Party in secret meetings with Democratic leaders in the Senate. That means his re-election was a kind of fraud on the voters, a deliberate deception designed to win with Republican money and votes.

So who do you think was wiser in framing our government – the Founders, or those 1913 "progressives" who converted Senators into directly-elected Congressmen with longer terms and statewide districts?

Jeffords and the same 99 Senators remain the same as before his defection. The musical chairs that have changed are those of committee chairmen, and with these switching from Republicans to Democrats go the power to advance or delay legislation, treaties, and presidential nominees such as judges. Democrats have also, thanks to Jeffords, acquired the power to launch sensational investigations into the Bush Administration and its alleged links to such industries as tobacco, natural gas, and oil to use as political propaganda. This is the "glass half empty" side of what has happened.

Optimistic Republican pundits also see a "glass half full" scenario in Jeffords’ departure. His were not the views of most Republicans, this analysis begins. Columnist David Limbaugh summarizes deftly: "Mr. Jeffords…has voted with Democrats more than any other Republican….[He] voted for family and medical leave, motor voter, the Brady bill, pushed for more funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, supports abortion rights, special rights for gays, is a far-left environmentalist, opposes school choice, and perhaps worst of all, supported Hillary Clinton’s effort to socialize health care….[and] voted to acquit Bill Clinton in the Senate and said with respect to Juanita Broaddrick’s allegation that Mr. Clinton raped her that rape is a private matter." The GOP is better off, these pundits argue, without bending their agenda to satisfy the likes of Jeffords.

Such a Republican bill of indictment could continue for many pages. Jeffords, for example, supported not only abortion but also upheld President Clinton’s veto of a bill to end partial-birth abortion. He voted against Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, saying "I believe Anita Hill." Jeffords was Clinton’s strongest Republican defender on impeachment, thereby giving Democrats political "cover" to stick with Clinton. (This, ironically, prevented Gore from becoming an incumbent President who would almost certainly sit in the Oval Office today.) And so forth.

But to his credit, and to the rage of hyper-Leftists like columnist Matthew Miller, Jeffords refused to empower Democrats until President Bush had the tax cut bill on his desk for signature. Two other "maverick" RINO (Republican in Name Only) Senators, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and John McCain of Arizona, voted against the Bush tax cut bill while Jeffords along with one out of four Democratic Senators voted for it.

According to the "glass half full" scenario, at least the loss of GOP Senate committee chairmanships deprives John McCain of his gavel over the Commerce Committee – where he preached for campaign finance reform while taking cash and corporate jet travel from companies McCain was regulating.

This rosy scenario argues that most presidencies stall out after about as many honeymoon months as Mr. Bush has enjoyed. President Bush has achieved his two main legislative goals – education reform (albeit after surrendering on vouchers) and the tax cut. By merely controlling the Senate, Democrats are powerless to roll either of these huge successes back. And with the tax cut having absorbed the budget surplus, Democrats also cannot credibly call for big new spending programs.

With the prospect that legislation and the economy are stalling anyway, Jeffords has brought Democrats to power just in time to take the blame for anything that now goes wrong. And his turncoat gesture has thrown over the Democrat Senate the same mantle of "illegitimacy" Democrats have tried to wrap around Bush’s "he-won-by-unorthodox-means" presidency.

Republicans have decades of experience in opposition. They have the 41 Senate votes needed to block cloture, even without the four remaining "moderate" Republicans –

Chafee, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, and Maine’s Susan Collins (perhaps herself to switch to "independent" before standing for reelection in 2002) and Olympia Snowe.

[Ever noticed how the media defines as "moderate" any Republican who votes like a Democrat, but never calls any Democrat who votes like a Republican "moderate?"]

This means that the Republican Party, if it wants to play hardball, can stop kowtowing to its "moderates," move to the right, and nullify Senate Democrats by using their own tactics.

And the wheel is yet spinning. Newsmax.com columnist and former Congressman John LeBoutillier reported Tuesday that Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) may have made a secret deal to leave office to avoid prosecution – perhaps while a Republican Governor in New Jersey can replace him with a Republican Senator and undo Jeffords’ mischief.

And President Bush, if he wants to play hardball, can adopt the methods President Bill Clinton used after Democrats lost both houses of Congress in 1994. Mr. Bush could govern by Executive Orders, by invoking emergency provisions in laws when no emergencies exist, and by making recess appointments to judgeships and other offices every time Congress goes off for the Fourth of July or other holidays. The Leftist media applauded President Clinton for using such high-handed tactics; the media should be denounced for hypocrisy if it attacks Bush for following in his Democrat predecessor’s footsteps. All this, my friends, is why the Founding Fathers wanted to avoid "faction."


Mr. Ponte co-hosts a national radio talk show Monday through Friday 6-8 PM Eastern Time (3-5 PM Pacific Time) on the Genesis Communications Network. Internet Audio worldwide is at GCNlive .com. The show's live call-in number is 1-800-259-9231. A professional speaker, he is a former Roving Editor for Reader's Digest.


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