WASHINGTON — In case you hadn’t noticed it, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords announced last Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election. After 17 years in the Senate, he’s packing up and going home.
Don’t feel bad if you did miss it. Few in the media thought it was a big deal. The Washington Post reported it on page A-7 and the New York Times on page A-15.
The Wall Street Journal devoted exactly one sentence to it. The Journal must have needed the space for “Hotel Industry Begins to Wake Up to Bedbug Problem.”
It was a stark change from four years ago. Back then, Jeffords was the most important person in Congress. His 2001 decision to abandon the GOP and deliver control to the Democrats was — rightly — called a political earthquake. Pundits fawned all over him, some even comparing him to Abraham Lincoln.
The moment proved to be fleeting, though, and Jeffords soon returned to his prior obscurity. His moment of fame and adoration will almost certainly be remembered as an odd blip in an otherwise thoroughly unremarkable career — if he’s lucky. In reality, it was just about the dumbest thing he ever did.
Granted, it didn’t seem that way at the time. In fact, it looked like pretty savvy maneuver. He was able to dump his own party for political gain and yet get the media to cast it as a matter of the highest, noblest principle.
But if was a matter of principle, why exactly did Jeffords wait until 2001? After all, he had long been a liberal uncomfortable inside his own party.
He was, to cite just one example, the only Republican House member to vote against Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981. Yet he never seriously thought about leaving the GOP until after the 2000 election.
The key factor in 2001 was that the Senate was split 50-50. If he switched Senate Democrats would owe him big time for bringing them to power.
Democrats Harry Reid and Tom Daschle sweetened the deal by promising him the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which Jeffords wanted badly.
He also had to know that if he waited any longer, Daschle and Reid might not be so generous. South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, then 98, had recently been the subject of a series of ghoulish stories alleging he could drop dead at any minute, tilting Senate control to the Democrats all by himself.
So, on May 24, 2001, he made the jump. Overnight Jeffords became a political superstar, a hero to Democrats still smarting over the Florida recount. Senator John Kerry was reported to have literally skipped through the Senate halls.
The media meanwhile regurgitated the Democrats’ spin.
Jeffords’ “unassuming demeanor draws comparisons to Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'” said the Washington Post. E.J. Dionne argued, with no apparent irony, “Jeffords’s departure may have been a profound act of loyalty toward his fellow embattled moderates.”
The New York Times engaged in some particularly naked schadenfreude. “The Mean Strategy Backfires” said columnist Bob Herbert, arguing the Republican extremists had forced Jeffords to do it.
Maureen Dowd wrote a dippy — even by her standards — fantasy in which a ghostly Prescott Bush dressed down his grandson for being a “bully” to Jeffords.
Republicans who pointed out that Jeffords had, in fact, betrayed them for a chairmanship were dismissed as sore losers.
For a guy like Jeffords who rarely got noticed in Washington, it had to be intoxicating. But if he had paid more attention he’d had noticed that his new admirers didn’t really love him. Rather, they loved what he did: give Bush and the GOP an embarrassing black eye.
Once the excitement died down, it turned out that Jeffords’s power in Washington had actually diminished. The new 51-seat Democratic majority couldn’t do much for him and the Republicans weren’t about to forget his betrayal.
Unlike Senators John McCain or Chuck Hagel, he had lost the power to wring concessions from Republican leaders on tight votes. By switching parties, Jeffords had no trump card left to play.
His two biggest concerns, funding a 1975 education bill he wrote and a maintaining a price-fixing cartel for New England dairy farmers, quickly fell by the wayside.
By December of 2001, the New Republic reported that Jeffords was despondent over his situation and venting to the Democratic leadership.
“For an afternoon, a few senators actually wondered if he could possibly do the unthinkable — switch back,” TNR‘s Michael Crowley reported.
He must have been even more depressed the following year when the GOP returned to the majority and Jeffords lost his chairmanship and what remaining clout he had. Instead he had to watch as McCain and Hagel became powerbrokers.
After 9/11, Jeffords’s switch became a faint memory. The biggest issue surrounding his departure is whether it’ll enable Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders to become the Senate’s first (avowed) socialist.
And so the great irony of Jeffords’s career is that the one time he showed genuine political savvy, even cunning, it actually turned out to be the biggest miscalculation he ever made.
He made his mark all right. But it was as an example of what not to do.