Jeffords and the GOP’s March to the Right

Former Sen. James Jeffords has died at the age of 80, and obituaries are frequently on that wild moment in 2001 when the Vermont moderate walked across the aisle and gave Democrats control of the Upper Chamber (WaPo’s Paul Kane has an especially detailed account of that event).

More broadly, the Jeffords defection is thought to represent one of the death spasms of the moderate wing of the GOP. At the time I went back a quarter of century and took a look at the Republican Senate Caucus of 1976:

In the summer of America’s bicentennial, there were 38 Republican members of the U.S. Senate. Nearly half of them — 17 — were considered moderates, if not liberals, by the prevailing community standards: Ted Stevens of Alaska, Lowell Weicker Jr. of Connecticut, Hiram Fong of Hawaii, Charles Percy of Illinois, James Pearson of Kansas, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Robert Griffin of Michigan, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Jacob Javits of New York, Robert Taft Jr. (the Younger) of Ohio, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood of Oregon, Richard Schweiker and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, J. Glenn Beall Jr. and Charles Mathias of Maryland, and Robert Stafford (Jeffords’ predecessor) of Vermont. Others, like Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee and Milton Young of North Dakota, were close to the hazy line that separated conservatives from moderates. (Still others, like Bob Dole of Kansas, were future “moderates” in the GOP conservative demonology.)

And to top things off, the presiding officer of the U.S. Senate was none other than Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller, long the bete noire of conservative Republicans and chief representative of the legendary Eastern Liberal Establishment.

That same summer, Ronald Reagan’s insurgent candidacy to topple moderate Republican President Gerald Ford was heading toward defeat, and many conservative activists were considering the possibility of abandoning the GOP to create a third party. Evangelical Christians were being stirred into political activity by the campaign of Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter, and Ford nearly beat him by successfully appealing to cultural liberals and moderates uncomfortable with Carter’s “born again” status.

By 2001 that was all ancient and nearly forgotten history.

What’s been remarkable since 2001 is less that more “RINOs” have been chased out of the GOP than that Republicans are a whole have trended hard right under conservative pressure. Nowadays a “moderate Republican” means someone who doesn’t like the idea of government shutdowns and debt defaults (or threats of same); may support tiny exemptions in proposed laws to ban abortions; doesn’t talk blandly as though it actually existed about Agenda 21 or other insane right-wing conspiracy theories; and occasionally discusses the opposition party in terms that don’t suggest they are heathenish traitors.

Jeffords crossed the aisle not merely at the end of one era but just ahead of an ideological whirlwind. Nothing that happened after his party-switch made it anything other than logical.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.