So Jim Jeffords of Vermont gets straight A's on his report card for "sticking with his principles," while the hapless Republican leadership-including the White House's Karl Rove and maybe the President himself-deserve exactly what they're getting for failing to deliver the flexible bipartisanship they so hypocritically promised. Extremist Bushies drove Sen. Jeffords from the party. All that, of course, was last week's spin by the big media. A few wishful thinkers still argue that the Jeffords switch in party affiliation, handing over control of the U.S. Senate to mostly liberal Democrats, doesn't matter all that much. But the Jeffords surprise will have huge effects not just inside the beltway but across the country and throughout the world. If you prefer to think of it only as a minor political blip, ask Jesse Helms what will happen to the Foreign Relations Committee under Joe Biden's new leadership. That story can be repeated several dozen times across the committee landscape. Yet the way the major media played the Jeffords story is just as big a concern-or maybe bigger. For the Jeffords episode is proof in and of itself that the political scene will keep changing; those who don't like the present cast of players are reminded that "this too shall pass." If only we could hope that the same thing might happen with any equal regularity to America's entrenched opinion shapers! From the moment the Jeffords story broke, the big media line was that here was a man of the middle, battered by the extremists and hung out to dry because of his own sense of rectitude. Out of nowhere suddenly came a new ethical hero. But it was lazy reporting to keep coming back, as so many writers did, to say that Mr. Jeffords was "simply following his conscience." Almost nobody dug enough to report what groups like the National Taxpayers Union found: On many issues Mr. Jeffords has been to the left of the typical Senate Democrat (see page 9). Such is hardly a portrait of a man welded to the ideological middle. The knee-jerk inference that Mr. Jeffords was the good guy while the luckless administration folks were nothing more than stubborn hardliners-that quick conclusion leapfrogged all the nuances of the bizarre case. A moderate? A man of the middle? Then what about these issues:
- One man's leverage. Among the most vigorous Jeffords media cheerleaders last week were some (like Daniel Schorr of National Public Radio) who back in December were most upset that the Florida legislature might have a hand in determining the outcome of the presidential election-and others who were critical of the U.S. Supreme Court for its supposedly pivotal role in the same election. "This is something for the voters to decide," such folks argued then, "and not for a small body to redirect." But if it's extreme for five members of the high court or for the Florida legislature to cast their shadow over a national institution, isn't it that much more extreme for a single person to do so? Where's Mr. Jeffords's moderation?
- The abortion issue. In his own words, "choice"-or the Republican position on abortion-was Sen. Jeffords's very first example of what has recently made him uncomfortable in the Republican Party. But the Jeffords record on abortion is anything but centrist. His last dozen votes on the subject have all weakened the pro-life position. His position may even be what his Vermont constituents want-but no one should call it a moderate position.
- Taking voters for granted. If the argument is sound, and it probably is, that Sen. Jeffords would win his seat from Vermont whether he ran next time as a Republican, as a Democrat, or as an independent, why not let the voters make that determination rather than simply presuming it to be the case? Wouldn't that be a little less arrogant, a little more modest and moderate thing to do? And yes, some of us should have made the same point when Sen. Richard Shelby similarly presumed on Alabama voters when he switched in 1995 from a Democratic to a Republican affiliation.
It's one thing for a man like Jim Jeffords to portray himself as a man of the middle. It's something else for the media to give him a free pass to his claim. "He's a New England moderate," we've been glibly assured in recent days, "and he just can't identify any longer with the new administration's conservative tilt." Neither, of course, can most mainstream reporters and pundits. In their distorted political landscape, there are but two horizons-the far right and the middle. And their ability and power to keep defining reality that way is a whole lot more costly to conservatives, and to the country, than anything Jim Jeffords has done in the last few days.