Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party just as the Senate was
completing action to approve President Bush's tax cut with only slight
modifications. While Jeffords's switch will help the Democrats slow down
Bush's juggernaut, it comes too late to block his single most revolutionary
Bush will now pay dearly for governing as if he had a mandate to move the
country hard right. Democrats, in gaining control of Senate committees, will
gain the immensely useful power to run hearings. This will enable them to set
agendas and shed light on abuses that Republicans and their corporate allies
would rather ignore. It will help Democrats promote liberal legislation and
slow Republican alternatives. And it will make it harder for Bush to appoint
wall-to-wall conservative judges.
But Jeffords's shift is not without complications for the Democrats as well.
Now a single Democratic senator has the power to hold the whole Democratic
caucus hostage by threatening to bolt their party just as Jeffords did his.
Jeffords's switch will also occasion more editorial celebration of bipartisan
Paradoxically, the Jeffords turmoil pushed confirmation of Solicitor General
Ted Olson onto a fast track. Had The Democrats waited until they were in
charge, they could have killed the nomination in committee. but Republicans
started threatening to delay the change in party control, so Democrats cut a
deal and let Olson's nomination come to the floor.
Most seriously, Jeffords's shift came too late to undo the damage of the tax
cut. Bush's victory is a fitting, final disgrace for the Democrats'
disastrous strategy of making payoff of the national debt their Maginot Line.
The logic, offered by New Democrats and fiscally conservative economic
advisers, held that Democrats needed to redeem their reputations as reliable
stewards of the budget. By emphasizing debt reduction, the argument went, the
Democrats could set aside so much of the surplus that Republicans could not
fund a massive tax giveaway. So fiscal responsibility would trump a risky tax
cut. But the strategy was ill conceived in every respect.
Democrats had nothing to be ashamed of where the national debt was concerned.
The debt was mostly Ronald Reagan's, and Bill Clinton had been the one to put
the budget back in balance. Fiscally, debt reduction was excessive.
Politically, it failed to rouse voters. The Democrats' own internal polling
demonstrated that a tax cut, even one tilted to millionaires, was more
popular than debt reduction, but that using the surplus on social spending -
for education, health, science, housing - was more popular than either
cutting taxes or retiring debt.
The long-term Republican design, which began with Reagan, is to thwart social
outlays by starving the government for resources - first with immense
deficits, now with unwarranted tax cuts. Politically, the only viable
response is not to wave mind-numbing balance sheets at fiscally bewildered
voters but to contrast unnecessary tax breaks for millionaires with needed
social outlays for everyone else.
The only good thing about the tax cut is that Bush's people cynically
backloaded it in order to conceal the true budgetary impact. The deep cuts do
not take effect until after 2005.
So if Democrats build on their takeover of the Senate and take back the House
of Representatives and the White House in 2004, it is possible to restore
some revenue capacity before most of the scheduled tax cuts take effect.
Don't scoff. Bill Clinton managed a large tax increase on the richest 2
percent of the population in 1993. The purpose then was to restore fiscal
balance. It 2005 it would be to restore social balance. Most voters would not
lose tax breaks but would gain social benefits.
Maybe Jeffords's switch will trigger a long-deferred party realignment.
Liberal Republicans could move to the Democratic Party, where they belong,
and the Democrats' de facto Republicans could join the GOP.
Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island says he hasn't ruled out a
switch. Suppose Chafee, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and John McCain switch to the
Democrats. In return, the Republicans can have the faithless Zell Miller of
Georgia, John Breaux of Louisiana, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska - and good
riddance. Political scientists have been dreaming of this kind of clean
realignment for a long time.
Meanwhile, Democrats can savor their first real victory of the Bush era even
as they lick their wounds from Bush's tax-cut victory and the confirmation of
extremists like Ted Olson. It is their first step in a long road back.