As if last November's election weren't enough to keep historians busy, the decision by Vermont Sen. James Jeffords to embrace independence and leave the Republican Party should keep the Washington-watchers up all night for weeks and months to come as they consider the ramifications of a move that has turned the Senate back to the Democrats, embarrassing the president and the GOP's conservative leadership.
One likely outcome is that Bush, who ran as a moderate, will have no choice now but to govern as a moderate or risk a presidency stymied by dissent and division.
There is no doubt that the political landscape has changed over the last 40 years, moving left, then right, then left and right simultaneously. If anything, the 2000 presidential election -- which saw the man with the majority of the popular vote losing the election -- underscored those shifts.
Conservatives moved further to the right and with most of the Republican moderates elected George Bush. On the left, Ralph Nader picked up enough votes to deny the presidency to Al Gore. But at the time, many centrists -- Democratic and Republican -- felt comfortable with the Bush candidacy as it was presented during the campaign.
After the election, however, and at the urging of conservative leaders and political pundits, Bush reverted to his conservative roots, acting as if he had a mandate to govern from the right.
Different agenda: But for many Americans, who find themselves fiscally conservative but socially liberal, the Bush agenda wasn't their agenda. And Jeffords found himself in their number.
Telling Vermonters why he was becoming an independent, he said, & quot;Looking ahead I can see more and more instances where I will disagree with the president on very fundamental issues: the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment. & quot;
Increasingly, Republicans have expected their members to march in lockstep to the leadership's cadence. Those who heard the beat of a different drummer could either fall in or risk retribution. That's what happened to Jeffords when he tried to push for increased spending on education. Perhaps the administration and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., were so convinced of their own rightness that they couldn't imagine any Republican opposing them.
However, Jeffords, a lifetime Republican who served in the House for 14 years and has been a senator for 12 years, said that he became a Republican "not because I was born into the party but because of the kind of fundamental principles that ... many other Republicans stood for: moderation, tolerance and fiscal responsibility."
With the Republicans no longer holding a majority in the Senate, Jeffords may have a greater opportunity to pull his former party back to the center than he would have were he still a member of the GOP. With the Democrats now holding a thin Senate majority, compromise and real bipartisanship will have to be the order of the day.