About Switching Sides
Jude Wanniski
May 31, 2001


Memo To: Website fans, browsers, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Thinking About Senator Jeffords

Having once switched parties, I know how Senator Jim Jeffords feels. After spending 21 years as a registered Democrat, with my first vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960, I became a Republican in 1978 so I could vote in New Jersey's GOP primary that year. In recent years, I've flirted with the idea of switching back, and if George W. Bush had not picked Dick Cheney as his running mate, I had threatened to vote for Ralph Nader.

It's hard to stick with a political party when its center of gravity keeps shifting. My jumping around was related to my discovery of supply-side economics. Before the term was coined, President Kennedy was advocating lower tax rates to expand the economy and a dollar as good as gold to keep inflation under control. The next thing I knew, the Democratic Party was pushing higher taxes and devalued dollars and another Democrat turned Republican, Ronald Reagan, was pledging lower tax rates to expand the economy and a dollar as good as gold. It does not take brain surgery to figure out that I really was standing still and the two major parties were revolving around me.

So it must have felt for Jim Jeffords. He is pretty much the same fellow who came to Washington 27 years ago when moderation was the center of gravity in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party was in its looney left phase. In 1976, for goodness sakes, a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter was the only candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who did not want to nationalize the oil industry!

Back in those days, conservatives huddled for warmth around William F. Buckley, Jr., while the Republican President, Richard Nixon, raised the capital gains tax, closed the gold window, devalued the dollar, imposed wage-and-price controls, and started more do-good social programs than LBJ. "We are all Keynesians now," Mr. Nixon announced, at about the time Vermont sent Mr. Jeffords to Congress. As a Democrat at the time, I began to think that the GOP might be a better place for me. My favorite U.S. Senators were Jacob Javits of New York and George Aiken of Vermont, the two most liberal Republicans.

Times change. Enter the New Democrat Bill Clinton and with him, his triangulating chum, Dick Morris, who decide to march to the right as long as House Speaker Newt Gingrich will feel crowded and move even further right. I don't know Senator Jeffords personally, but I can guess he was as anxious as I as we watched Newt close down the government while trying to kill the school lunch program and cut Medicare benefits for little old ladies.

Heavens knows I tried to warn my Republican friends, including Newt, that Clinton/Morris had pushed the GOP center of gravity too far right. When the President dropped bombs on Iraq or Belgrade or Sudan aspirin factories, Republicans would denounce him for not dropping bigger bombs!! Where the Democrats propose to spent a few billion on missile defense R&D, the GOP wants to spend a few trillion, deploy the gizmos whether they work or not, and tell China, Russia and NATO partners to like it or lump it.

To tell you the truth, I am happy that Jim Jeffords left our party and went independent. My old pals at The Wall Street Journal editorial page, who helped drive him out by denouncing him as a compassionate moderate, also are happy to see him gone. But for different reasons, which are too sordid for me to relate here. I'm happy because I know how he feels, and how wonderful it must be for him to not have to hang out with the trillion-dollar bombers. I'm happy, too, that while he is helping the Democrats organize, he is not signing up as a full-fledged Democrat. The voters last fall went to a lot of trouble to put our political parties on a knife-edge balance, hoping this might work them to work together, the way a national family should. As an independent, he always can put his thumb on the scales in either direction.

Let me tell you, it is not easy being in that position. There are Republican commentators who suggest that Sen. Jeffords made his move because he was seated below the salt at a White House event or because he lusted after a committee chairmanship. These are the kooks who remind me of the loonies I left behind when I switched parties in 1978. If you have not gone through the process, you do not know how hard it is. Your old colleagues hate and despise you and your new colleagues don't trust you and worry that you will want more than you deserve for being a turncoat. Senator Jeffords actually may deserve a Profile in Courage award.

If President Bush had behaved this way, I would have followed Jeffords out the door, but he was properly philosophical and made me feel that I should stick around. I'd really like to go out as a Republican. One switch per lifetime should be all that history demands of any of us.