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Jewish World Review May 29, 2001 / 7 Sivan, 5761

John H. Fund

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Consumer Reports

Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse -- BEFORE Jim Jeffords, the most memorable senator to leave his party and become an independent was the irascible Wayne Morse of Oregon. Like Mr. Jeffords, Morse left the Republican Party, in January 1953, to protest its domination by conservatives. Ironically, Morse's was also the decisive vote that could have made or broken partisan control of the Senate. But he handled his leverage very differently, and, in a word, honorably.

In July 1953, Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft--"Mr. Republican"--died unexpectedly, and his successor was named by a Democratic governor. Suddenly, the Democrats had a 48-47 edge in the Senate. But Morse continued to vote for a GOP majority leader because he said it would be dishonorable for him to hand over control to Democrats having been elected as a Republican. With Vice President Richard Nixon casting a tie-breaking vote, Republicans retained control for the next 18 months.

Morse remained an independent throughout that time until the 1954 elections delivered firm control of the Senate to Democrats, whereupon he became a Democrat. He is best remembered for being one of only two senators to vote against the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which broadened the Vietnam War. A Wayne Morse Integrity in Politics award is given each year to a person who most exemplifies his legacy of "Principle Above Politics."

Somehow I doubt that Mr. Jeffords, who secured a promise that he would chair the key Environment and Public Works Committee before he agreed to vote with the Democrats, is putting principle above politics. Even some of his Vermont friends are questioning the way he is abandoning the Republican Party after winning a dozen elections since 1966 with its help.

Jeffrey Wennberg, a former mayor of Mr. Jeffords's hometown of Rutland, also worked on his congressional staff. In an interview, he said that he is mystified by Mr. Jeffords's explanation for his party shift. "Jim backed Bush last year in the primaries and general election knowing he was a conservative," he says. "Now Bush as president isn't doing anything he didn't campaign on." He believes that Mr. Jeffords should resign and seek a new mandate. "I can understand why people would feel betrayed if he did otherwise," he says. "It's not healthy for the democratic process if voters aren't asked."

Richard Mallary, who was Mr. Jeffords's immediate predecessor in the House in the early 1970s, anticipated Mr. Jeffords's defection last year when he left the Republicans to run unsuccessfully for the Legislature as an independent. Mr. Mallary agrees with Mr. Jeffords that Republicans have become too conservative. But he said that when voters went to the polls, they voted for a Republican who would back his party's leadership. "It was sort of an implied commitment to vote with the Republicans to organize the Senate," he told the Rutland Herald. If Mr. Jeffords honestly feels he can't keep that commitment, then Mr. Mallary says he has an obligation to resign and run for re-election under a new banner.

Most party switchers don't do that, of course, but there is a conspicuous exception. When Phil Gramm left the Democrats in 1983, he resigned his House seat and won a snap election as a newly minted Republican. Sen. Zell Miller (D., Ga.), himself the object of much pressure to switch parties, has said he admired the way Mr. Gramm handled his switch. He has hinted that he might follow the same course if he becomes fed up with Democrats who criticize his support of some of President Bush's initiatives.

It's not surprising that Mr. Jeffords appears to be in no mood to seek a new mandate. Since he need not face the voters again until 2006, it's possible that, at age 67, he is serving his last term and will never stand for election again. Mr. Jeffords may have changed history by turning the Senate upside down, but the manner in which he did it is unlikely to make him a candidate for the Wayne Morse Integrity in Politics award.

The senator, clearly, is no Wayne Morse.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund