Richard Reeves

Beltway Politics Are Fun Again

WASHINGTON -- Washington is normal again: Most everybody here is frothing at the mouth.

The Democrats have been crazy ever since -- in their view -- the Republicans stole the presidency for that amiable dunce George W. Bush. Now the Republicans are spastic because -- in their view -- the Democrats stole one of their senators. In effect, the defection of Vermont's James Jeffords is Florida II. And now there will be many Floridas. The capital is rabid, with mutual contempt and hatred everywhere inside the Beltway.

It is great fun, and it will get better. The most fun so far is reading the most influential voice of American conservatism, probably of all American politics, The Wall Street Journal, fuss and fume over the Jeffords betrayal, which the Journal defined on its editorial page last Wednesday as "A Beltway Coup."

In the Journal's editorial page version, Democrats are brilliant strategists who -- a mirror image -- almost stole the presidential election and then identified and managed to pick off the most vulnerable of Republican troops. Thus those clever Dems, says the Journal, "overturned a large part of the November election and let the Beltway media mop up by blaming the whole transition on the president's political beliefs."

Wow, we clever Beltway media! Actually, I would be inclined to put more of the blame on the president's incompetence. Also, he had a lot of help from the Journal and others who kept saying the conservatives had to get tough with squishes like Jeffords.

Who was watching the store? Why did this happen? Why not? The voters were equally divided last November, and now their representatives in Washington are too. This is a natural state of partisan democratic affairs, which came about for a number of reasons, including:

-- The Bush White House was living in a dream world, imagining that if they said they had a mandate, they would have one. The isolation of the president and his team cannot be exaggerated. They had no more idea that they were going to lose their Senate majority than they did weeks before when the United States lost its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

-- The Republicans are not yet a natural majority party. The exit of Jeffords is really the result of his former party's inability to comfortably absorb the South into its old-time Abraham Lincoln and Main Street core. The Grand Old Party took over the Congress when Southern Democrats, voters and politicians alike, broke away from a national Democratic Party dominated by liberals from New York and New England. That was nice for a while -- with senators from Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to Richard Shelby of Alabama changing parties -- but now the Republicans have inherited the same North-South problems the Democrats had. In the Democrats' time, the Southerners defected. In the Republicans' time, the Northerners are restless.

-- Republicans think discipline is strategy. You can go a long way in politics by marching in lockstep -- if you have one more vote than the other side. But now the Republicans have one or more fewer votes. An outsider really has to wonder whether we are watching the self-destruction of people who would rather go down together in flames than make alliances with the impure.

In fact, it seems that many Republicans think the Jeffords defection proves that conservatives have to get even tougher. Advising Bush what to do next, the Journal targets Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana and anyone who votes for him, writing: "(The president) can use the bully pulpit, for example, by letting the people of Montana know that they won't be defended from ballistic missiles until their vote for the Senate corresponds with their presidential voting."

Does that mean what I think it means? If Montanans don't put Republicans in Congress, they don't deserve to live. Boy, I'd move to someplace safer. Maybe people there should consider moving to Washington. At least our coups and battles aren't bloody -- just frothy!

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