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Historical Perspectives on Jeffords Defection

May 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: We get some historical perspective from NewsHour regulars, Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them is former Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. He’s now a lecturer in legislative politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Well, can any of you remember any time in modern American history where the decision of one man had so much anticipation around it, had so up riding on it, Haynes?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, Theodore Roosevelt — 1912 when he bolted the Republican Party — set the stage for the ending of that party as control of the White House and the progressive government of Woodrow Wilson and all the rest, and later on the New Deal had a profound impact on the politics of America. But there has not been a time in our lifetime where we’ve seen anything — I agree with the Senators, seismic it’s a moment of great, earthquake, all these things. This is an unusual day.

RAY SUAREZ: Doris.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know, in some ways I’ll go back to 1910 – even further back than Haynes Johnson — because I think what happened then was that you had a series of progressive Republicans who felt they weren’t being listened to by the conservative leadership particularly in the house there was this old character Joe Cannon, who was the Speaker of the House and a real autocrat. First one caught and then another began to bolt and they actually stripped Cannon of the power, and that created a whole new group within the progressive Republican tradition.

And I think the question today is if this is going to be historic, it will depend on whether or not Jeffords having said that this was a feeling that his party no longer could embrace his progressive Republicanism is going to be followed by others. Are there others out there? Not necessarily even others who will bolt the Republican Party but others who will stand up for what they believe and their views and feel sort of strengthened in their ability to act on principle because of what Jeffords did. It’s one of wonderful those movements, I think, where we can wonder will an individual makes a difference again? We’ve lost that belief in our country. We saw it again in the election when individual votes make a difference. And I think maybe today the dramatic unfolding will make people question whether or not if they do stand up for what they believe they really might be able to make a difference.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One of the most dramatic and most exact parallels a little bit before our time — 1881 – and that is when there was an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and it came down to a guy game named William Mahone of Virginia who was elected by a break away Democratic faction, and there were rumors that the White House — Republican White House – James Garfield with champagne and satisfaction — we don’t know what they meant by satisfaction, but he surprised everyone by allying with the Republicans. He did get a payoff. He got to be chairman of the Agriculture Committee. He got a lot of patronage. He also got to influence who were going to be officers in the Senate and perhaps, most of all, the coup de grace was a huge basket of flowers arrived from the Garfield White House.

RAY SUAREZ: And Chester Arthur got to break the ties.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And also got to be president very soon which – needless to say — is not an exact parallel here but perhaps not as principled as Jim Jeffords.

RAY SUAREZ: Mickey Edwards, has there ever been so many riding on the decision of one politician?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, I think one of the things riding on this that is significant is there have been a lot of changes from one party to another. But it’s usual usually the other direction, it has usually been going from people leaving the Democratic party and becoming Republicans – and before Bill Clinton — we have to remember — Republicans had won five out of six presidential elections and the country was moving to the right. Given that psychology, it really is significant now that the big news is a Republican Senator leaving and sending a message that there are a lot of people who are not as conservative as some of the leaders in the Senate who maybe don’t have a home in the Republican Party. I think he was wrong by the way. I have great respect for Jim Jeffords. I served with him in the House. He is a good man but I think he is wrong but I think he has dealt a blow to the Republican Party today.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it have to happen again before we can talk about a change in national momentum or trend?

MICKEY EDWARDS: I don’t think it has to happen again but I think that the fact that everybody is even talking about this and now looking at isn’t Arlen specter going to be up happy. Apparently he is not based on what we saw on the program. But there are a lot of others. There is Olympia Snowe. There is Susan Collins, there are a lot of Republicans who don’t quite fit the conservative mold. And I think if you are sitting in the White House right now, you have to be wondering what do you have to be wondering what do you have to do to keep those people on board.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Haynes, Jim Jeffords has been for a long time one of the most liberal members of his caucus but he is a northeasterner, a Vermonter. Is his departure part of a very long process in American politics?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think it is. What we’re watching — do you remember the election map? We watched that terrible night when we didn’t get sleep. It was all red in the United States — colored in Republican from the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico and right over from the deep South over to the Rocky Mountains — solid Republican. You had the blue or the Democrats. And they had the old New England base, the Yankee base. They were voting for the Democrats. Now you are seeing a move back away from the old Republican wing, progressive wing like Jeffords. I think it’s quite significant in that sense. And you also have the blues covering in the West Coast. The county is really culturally, economically, politically divided and this tells you how the divisions are, and the arrows now seem to be going in another division.

RAY SUAREZ: Doris, do you agree?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know what is so interesting is to look back to 1944 when Franklin Roosevelt had lunch with the progressive Republican Wendell Wilkie, and he suggested to him that he thought that the progressive Democrats and progressive Republicans should form one party; they would lop off the southern conservatives from the Democratic Party, lop off conservatives from the Republican Party, and really have a division that people could then debate and stimulate the country as a whole. Wilkie actually agreed with him and sadly, however, several months later Wilkie suddenly died so that dream of Roosevelt of really defining the parties more according to progressive and conservative, rather than this geological – or geographic way we have it now — never got realized, so I think part of it is also going to depend not only on what other Republicans do but does this embolden the Democrats who have been really defensive, it seems to me, since the election to somehow debate as they have what the size of the tax cut should be, rather than putting forth that they wanted public resources to be used with this surplus for the environment, for parks, for schools in a much larger way and ask the country to debate that issue. They got caught I think on their own petard, as that old saying goes, but now maybe they’re going to be more on the offensive and the issues will get defined more, and the country can debate it. I think the best thing that can come out of this instead of looking at what is happening in Washington, with these little maneuvers going on, the country starts really talking about what do they want to do with this huge surplus.

RAY SUAREZ: Mickey Edwards, perhaps you heard Senator Hutchison just a little while ago talking about how she wanted everyone to be welcome in the Republican Party. But Jim Jeffords, upon his departure, said he no longer felt like it was his party. They seem to all say they want a broad church but we are not seeing so much of a broad church anymore, are we?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, there are a lot of moderate and liberal Republicans in the House and the Senate and in the Governorships and in the state legislatures so the Republican Party is still a pretty broad party. It is — it’s obviously more conservative then the Democrats are. I think the real problem here is if you see the two parties become more polarized and less of umbrella parties. What we have had so far has kept the country pretty much in the center. If you start seeing the Democratic Party become more a liberal party as Doris suggested they once talked about being, and the Republican Party becoming just the conservative party, I think we are more likely to swing between extremes than we are to continue to have a very centrist kind of a politics. From that standpoint I think it’s disturbing. But I still think that both the Democrats and Republicans, you know, have a pretty broad mix philosophically within their ranks.

RAY SUAREZ: Can we look to other parts of American history where the parties seem to be in play?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure. This is one of the biggest themes because when a party gets too far from the center, they lose elections and they come back to the center so they can begin winning again. You’ve seen the opposite. In 1948 for instance over civil rights, a lot of southerners walked out of the Democratic Party; the same thing in 1964 with civil rights. Strom Thurmond, who seemed to be the fragile thread that this Republican majority was hanging on, became a Republican in 1964. He had been a Democrat part of the movement. The new Democrats — Bill Clinton’s efforts to bring that party to the center was because a lot of the Democrats said, our party has gotten too liberal; we can’t win elections any more. You may see Republicans now saying the same thing.

RAY SUAREZ: So what should we be looking for – I mean, to understand the moment, to understand the significance of this event?

HAYNES JOHNSON: There is an old saying that 24 hours is a lifetime in a life of a politician and a political party and a country. This moment is really up for grabs. It requires the kind of leadership to put together what Mickey was talking about, coalition governments and coalition consensus politics so you don’t have one extreme over there and one extreme over there and nothing gets down. Otherwise you have a polarized and more of a turn off of the electorate. So it’s a very important moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Mickey Edwards, when this split Senate and it power sharing plan first was introduced back in January, the conventional wisdom was that was going to give a lot of power to those in the middle — the often called Snowe-Rowe coalition — but we saw one politician who rather than relishing that role as a man in the middle found that he had to redefine himself. What do you make of that?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, you know, I have a vested interest in saying that I think the common wisdom was right because that’s what I was saying at the same time but I think what has happened here is that it was the leadership in the Senate and perhaps the White House that was is not as skilled as it could have been in making sure that the views of people like Jeffords and Snowe and the others were being adequately considered. You know, sometimes Presidents, I’m sitting here surrounded by people who are in fact presidential scholars, and I am not — but sometimes presidents have a tendency to become a little arrogant in their office and to not respect the individual at of Senators and their concerns. And that might have been at play here too. It doesn’t sound like Jeffords was given the kind of attention to his ideas, to his principles, that he should have had. So I think it could have worked as we were talking about the common wisdom in the center, but I think to some extent he may have been pushed overboard.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we’re going to leave it there, thank you all.