Back in the 1990s, the famed economist and longtime Townshend summer resident John Kenneth Galbraith observed that one difference between Vermont and other states is that we could send a Republican (Jim Jeffords), a Democrat (Patrick Leahy), and an independent socialist (Bernie Sanders) to Congress, and they would all vote the same way on most issues.
Former U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, who died at age 80 on Aug. 18, got called a RINO (“Republican in name only”) by the doctrinaire conservatives who now dominate today’s GOP. And, for the rest of the nation, he is mostly known for the one act that defined his long political career: his decision in 2001 to leave the Republican Party and become an independent.
It was a move that seemed uncharacteristic. To outside political observers, Jeffords was seen as a low-profile politician who rarely strayed from the middle of the road. But he departed the GOP in a move that had more to do with his political principles than personal hubris.
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“I was not elected to this office to be something I am not,” Jeffords said at the time in his formal announcement, invoking the names of Republicans who preceded him as Vermont’s senators — men such as Ernest W. Gibson Jr., Ralph Flanders, George Aiken, and Robert Stafford.
Those names represent a Republican Party that no longer exists — a party of moderation, common sense, and a desire to put the needs of Vermonters ahead of partisan politics.
Gibson’s career in the U.S. Senate was short, but as governor in the years after the end of World War II, he helped to begin the transformation of Vermont from forgotten backwater into a progressive state.
Flanders was among the first senators to take on Joe McCarthy and his reckless witch hunt for alleged communists in the government.
Aiken served six terms in the Senate and was the man who helped create the school lunch program and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
If you are a college student, you’ve heard of Stafford — he was the senator who created the low-interest government loan program that bears his name. Jeffords would ultimately succeed Stafford in the Senate in 1988.
What all these men had in common besides being Republicans was that they voted their consciences rather than the party line. Often, that meant they ran counter to the GOP’s stance on many issues. But in the end, they did what was best for Vermont rather than what was best for their own party.
That political philosophy has long been a part of the Vermont tradition.
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In his four decades in public life in Vermont and in Washington, Jeffords distinguished himself as a champion of the environment. In the Vermont Legislature, he helped push through the ban on billboards in our state, the “bottle bill” that required deposits on beverage containers, and Act 250, the state’s landmark land-use law that preserved our landscape. As a U.S. Senator, he helped secure passage of the Clean Air Act of 1990.
One of his first pieces of legislation he co-authored after he was elected to Congress in 1974 ultimately became the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which opened public schools to pupils with physical or mental challenges. He also helped negotiate the Northeast Dairy Compact, which helped save dairy farms in Vermont and the rest of New England.
Jeffords wasn’t afraid to buck his party’s leaders and vote the way his constituents wanted. He was the only Republican to vote against the Reagan tax cuts in 1981, and he voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001. He voted against Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. He supported the Clinton health-care plan and opposed then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.
He was was one of only five Republican Senators who voted against President Clinton’s impeachment in 1999. And, in 2003, Jeffords joined his fellow members of the Vermont Congressional delegation, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, in voting against the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, making Vermont the only state whose elected federal officials unanimously opposed the war.
In short, Jeffords was principled and independent, and Jeffords’ decision to leave the GOP was in keeping with that tradition.
In 2001, he battled with the incoming Bush administration over education funding, particularly the federal government’s commitments to special education, and sided with the Senate Democrats in supporting a $1.35 trillion tax cut package that year rather than the $1.6 trillion that Bush sought.
The Bush administration officials saw Jeffords’ action as an affront to their agenda, and the word went out that Jeffords was going to be punished for straying from the party line.
With a bit more tact, Jeffords might have been persuaded to stay. Instead, the back room talk of “payback” forced Jeffords to re-examine the place of a New England moderate in a party dominated by Sun Belt conservatives.
The desire to maintain party discipline ultimately cost the GOP control of the Senate for the remainder of 2001 and 2002. Conservatives were outraged, but most people in Vermont supported his decision.
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Jeffords has long been a popular politician in this state, and had he chosen to run for another term in 2006, he would have won easily.
But his health failed him, and he reluctantly retired from the Senate. Sadly, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the death of his wife Liz in 2007 robbed him of a happy retirement, and he spent his final years in the Knollwood Military Retirement Residence in Washington, D.C.
Jim Jeffords’ death is another reminder of how far to the right the Republican Party has shifted. The moderate Republican is a virtually extinct species, driven out by the Tea Party extremists and Christian fundamentalists.
As a nation, we are more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. And the politicians like Jeffords — politicans who could bridge ideological divides and put the needs of the people ahead of party — are few and far between today.