Richard Reeves

The Republicans Blackballed Jeffords

WASHINGTON -- Be aware of the curse of getting what you wish for. Look at the Republicans in this excited town.

The Republicans who came to the White House four months ago with President Bush, and returning members of Congress who cheered him through the gates, wanted two things above all:

1. To cut the size and role of government;

2. To drive the liberal "squishes" out of their party.

It seems they've gotten their wishes. The Bush tax cuts, whether the total amount adds up to $1.6 trillion or $1.35 trillion, are about to be voted into law. The Republicans smartly used talk of recession to cut government off at the knees. The reductions over 10 years were designed to outlive their control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

The real goal of the tax-cutting is not to stimulate the economy, which would be nice, but to scale back the size and power of government by cutting off the oxygen of tax revenues. The tax cut was an ideological goal. The effect will be to reduce nondefense government spending to its lowest level since World War II.

Driving out the liberals was personal. The leaders of this wave of Republican conservatism are zealots. They simply could not stand seeing, hearing or being in the room with colleagues they considered traitors inside the party. It was only a month ago that I found myself writing happily about this odd resurgence of liberal Republicans. The "squishes," conservatives called them, or "the weak sisters" or "the RINOS" -- Republicans In Name Only.

The resurgence was odd not because there were hordes of lefties masquerading as Republicans. It happened because the Republicans who came to power this year had moved so far right that moderates like the suddenly famous Sen. James Jeffords looked like Marxists to the Bushmen in the White House, Trent Lott in the Senate, and Tom DeLay and Dick Armey in the House.

Now Jeffords has switched sides, almost, with a manner that echoes Josiah Bartlett in "The West Wing" television series. He will list himself as an independent rather than a Democrat, but will side with the Democrats in organizing the Senate -- and demoting Lott from majority leader to minority leader. But even with the party paying a high price for purity, many Republicans are more than willing to pay it -- cutting off their own noses for spite -- to avoid having lunch with people they despise.

One down, a dozen to go. The other names on the conservative hit list now include: Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio; and Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, Rep. Amory Houghton of New York, Rep. Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania, Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan. The list may include Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and even Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

They have been characterized this way by Pete DuPont, who has moved from being a conservative presidential candidate to conservative radio commentator:

"Most are pro-racial preference and pro-minimum wage increases. And on two core issues of individual liberty, school choice and the free-speech limitations of campaign spending 'reform,' they're hopeless. They're big government people ..."

The Jeffords defection will not only change the way the Senate operates -- for the moment, at least, we have divided government again -- it also could and should mark the end of the president's "mandate." Bush has for these four months managed to get away with pretending the nation is solidly behind him, even if the majority of the nation's voters cast their ballots for the other guy.

Sen. Snowe responded to last Thursday's events by saying it shows that the party has to pay attention to its own small minority of moderates or liberals. But McCain's reaction seemed more telling to me: "Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party, and it is well past the time for the Republican Party to grow up."

That is certainly true, but it may miss the point. The Republicans don't want to grow up, and the bunch in power now are not really a party, mature or otherwise. The Republicans are a club, and they reserve the right to refuse admittance.

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