I don’t have much to add to the outpouring of words, messages, and comments on the death of former Senator Jim Jeffords. I didn’t move to Vermont until his very last year in office; and by then, he had largely withdrawn from the public sphere. But, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.
Jim Jeffords was a rare politician: one willing to vote his conscience even if it offended his colleagues. As a liberal, I cheered his decision to go independent in 2001 and tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. I could well understand why he did so: the Bush Administration was clearly intent on pushing the country far to the right. W’s definition of “bipartisanship” was “my way or the highway.” Not to mention that Bush was a terrible President, and the more power he had, the worse it was for the nation and the world.
That said, I can understand why Jeffords was a villain to so many Republicans: after putting up with the Reagan years and the anti-Clinton madness of the 90s, he chooses to leave the Republican Party just when it hurt the most – when it tipped the balance of power in the Senate. It’s not unlike how Virginia Democrats feel about ex-Senator Philip Puckett, who resigned after being offered a cushy job. His departure and replacement by a Republican tipped the balance in the Virginia Senate.
The two cases are not the same, obviously; Jeffords wasn’t offered a cushy job. But the impact was the same.
And while Jeffords honestly felt he had no place in the modern-day GOP, his departure was the death knell for moderate Republicanism in Vermont. He served as a powerful example to other moderate Republicans, that the party had nothing to offer them. And for conservative Vermonters, I’m sure he became a symbol of moderate perfidy. I imagine that the antipathy toward Phil Scott’s moderate movement expressed by the likes of Darcie Johnston and Jack Lindley is largely engendered by Jim Jeffords’ apostasy. Honestly, if I were a conservative, looking at Phil Scott (or another moderate) in light of my experience with Jeffords, would I trust him to uphold the values of the GOP as I see them? Might I fairly view Scott as another potential turncoat? There’s certainly been speculation aplenty that Scott might someday run for Governor as an independent.
I’m not saying that any of this is Jim Jeffords’ fault. He had abundant reason to believe that he was already an outcast in the Bush-era Republican Party. He didn’t cause the death of New England moderate Republicanism; he was just the last and loudest one to go. For that, he will always be a hero to liberals, and a turncoat to conservatives.
It would be fascinating to see an alternative timeline where Jeffords stuck it out as a Republican, and remained healthy and vibrant after his retirement. Could he have been an effective “leader emeritus” of a more moderate — or at least more inclusive — Vermont Republican Party? We’ll never know, but things might have turned out very differently for the VTGOP.