In Praise of Moderates

by Dan Pollock | 5/30/01 5:00am

The rumors swirled through the marble stairwells of the Senate and the ornate gardens of the Capitol. Whispers of shock met scoffs of disbelief at every office's water cooler. Barely anyone dared utter the word -- "independent." Oblivious to the precipitous change about to occur, a Dartmouth '01 wandered the Senate, looking for the site of his next job interview (for a lowly staff assistant position). Passing through the office of last summer's internship, I ran into an old friend. "Have you heard?" she asked me, "Jim Jeffords might leave the Republican Party!" It was almost too incredible to be true. And yet just like the removal of a single card from a card house, Jeffords single handedly brought the entire Republican Senate crashing to the ground. How could Jim Jeffords, Vermont's loyal Senator of 13 years, strike such a stunning blow to the Republicans in the Senate who had called him a colleague and a friend? How could the Bush White House have been so asleep at the switch that they could allow their precious control of the Senate to utterly collapse? More importantly, was Jim Jeffords a confused dissenter who decided to fundamentally alter his political beliefs or a loyal Republican who could not in good conscience support an agenda that repressed the voices of so many? The Jim Jeffords story is a perfect example of what happens when the moderates in any political party are stifled, not because the party disrespects their views, but because the party's ambitions become too great. Moderates are the gears in the complex machinery of successful lawmaking and Jeffords' departure should serve as a warning to both parties about the penalties of political arrogance.

Jim Jeffords didn't leave the Republican Party because the party's politics had lurched to the right. He left because they had taken him for granted. Responsible policy-making is usually done over months of discussion, and sometimes years of debate. But Mr. Bush's tax cut couldn't wait. After so many years of Clinton-stalling the Republicans' thirst for a tax bill had reached feverish levels. It was bad enough that a few conservative Democrats would have to be courted in order to prevent those ugly party-line votes and the appearance of uncompassionate conservatism. But there was no room for tolerating the demands of liberal Republicans, the "weak sisters," as some Republicans call them.

It wasn't so much the idea of a tax bill that bothered Jim Jeffords, but rather the way they went about passing it. At first they refused to compromise altogether. Then, when it was clear that they had no choice but to compromise, Jeffords' complicity in the deal made him a marked man. After a debate over what essentially boils down to a $250 billion difference ($1.6 trillion versus $1.35 trillion), the Republican Party threatened to punish Jeffords simply for a difference of opinion. Some conservative Republicans may now be thinking, "What's a couple billion when we had the entire Senate on the line?"

Forcing the tax cut wasn't the only reason that Senator Jeffords had to leave. With regard to the Bush agenda, it wasn't a matter of policy disagreements, but rather the way the party dealt with those disagreements. For the first time in 50 years, Republicans had the opportunity to enact a thoroughly conservative agenda, and, like kids in a candy store, none of them wanted to listen to Dentist Jeffords who pleaded with them to slow down and make changes in moderation. For the past six months, the Bush White House has been digging out the GOP's grand old policies, some of which haven't been discussed by anyone other than Washington's stand-up comedians for two decades or more. Nuclear power, remember how great that was? Doesn't pollute nearly as much as coal or gas, except for that minor annoyance of creating radioactive waste that takes 5,000 years to decay. Funding for religious organizations sounded good, even if it does mean giving greater resources to Scientologists and other questionable groups. Now if only Pat Roberts would go along with it. Coming out against energy conservation in favor of drilling on a wildlife preservation was bold -- but at least we'll still be able to see those animals in the museums, that is if the funding for the museums doesn't get cut.

But the real problem is that he has presented these policies as if his several hundred Florida voters had turned into an overwhelming mandate for a Republican agenda thanks to Fairy Godfather Jim Baker's magic wand. George W. Bush does not have the support of a mandate from the people. He has been pursuing his agenda with only token compromise rather than acknowledging the closeness of the 2000 election. Bush was flying a plane full of conservative agenda items with two busted engines and a weak-hearted co-pilot.

Jim Jeffords could no longer stay with the Republican Party because the GOP had forgotten that moderates' opinions deserve recognition -- not because they appear bipartisan, but because moderates' opinions represent the vast majority of Americans' opinions. Moderates help legislation become something that is both relevant and acceptable to the largest number of voters. Should moderates be allowed to make all the decisions? Absolutely not, or we would end up with wishy-washy policies that accomplish almost nothing. But when moderates are shut out, or, even worse, kept quiet through subtle threats, a political party risks the marginalization of the American people. Barry Goldwater stood at the Republican Convention in 1964 and said, "Extremism is no sin if you are engaged in the defense of freedom." He went on to lose the 1964 election in one of the biggest election losses in the 20th century. (Ironically Goldwater's comment was a criticism of the party's leading moderate -- and Dartmouth alumnus -- Nelson A. Rockefeller.) In the wake of the Jeffords departure, John McCain called on his party to "grow up." But one of the great things about children is that their opinions and philosophies aren't yet etched in stone. Maybe both parties need a bit of a refresher course in one of those elementary school lessons: the one that teaches respect.