Welcome to the Jeffordsonian era, a time in American history when a politician with a straight face can announce as a reason for leaving a political party a belief that the party is not "moderate" enough. Gone are the days when a Ronald Reagan-no matter how absurd the reasoning--would leave the Democratic Party out of a conviction that the New Deal and Great Society Dems had become enemies of freedom. Gone are the days when a Bob LaFollette would leave the Republican Party out of a conviction that the party of Lincoln had lost interest in guaranteeing freedom and equality for all Americans. Gone too are the days when whether or not the Democrats or Republicans control the United States Senate really matters.
Perhaps that last statement sounds a bit too Naderite for liberal Dems still smarting over the election results, but consider this: the major reason that Senator Jim Jeffords
(Independent-Vermont) gave recently for leaving the Republicans was that he could not agree with the GOP's budget priorities. Specifically, he is concerned that the GOP budget does not provide enough funding for President Bush's education initiatives. Does he disagree with those education initiatives? No, and in fact he and the majority of the Democrats in the Senate are completely in sync with Dubya on the idea that testing, testing, and more testing is the answer to our education woes.
Media accounts of Jeffords' party bolt emphasized that Dubyaous will now have more difficulty getting into place his conservative agenda of Social Security privatization, a national missile defense system, right-wing judicial appointments, and a big-oil energy plan. But what is the Democratic Party agenda that Jeffords has now pushed into the majority? Does Majority Leader Daschle intend to fight for any of the following?:
*A national health care plan.
*An end to the failed war on drugs.
*An end to the federal death penalty.
*Putting the teeth back in the watered down version of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that passed the Senate.
*Withdrawal of the United States from the World Trade Organization and a rethinking of NAFTA.
*A foreign policy grounded in respect for international law, national self-determination, human rights, and economic justice.
*Repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act (the major barrier to union organizing in America)
*An inflation-adjusted minimum wage.
*An end to commercial logging in our national forests.
*A post Cold War military budget.
*An examination of corporate privilege in America or at least an end to corporate welfare programs.
*Electoral laws that would remove obstacles to third party organizing.
*Nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court justices in the tradition of Louis Brandeis, William Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall.
I suspect that Senator Daschle will fight for none of these. Remember, this is the Jeffordsonian Era. Any political agenda that might actually be of benefit to the majority of citizens is immediately condemned as irresponsible, unrealistic and "bad for business" not only by Republicans, but by the majority of Democrats.
What Wisconsin's Fightin' Bob LaFollette said almost 100 years ago still holds today: "The supreme issue, involving all of the others, is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many." The progressive era generated hope that America could end the encroachment and live up to its promise. The Jeffordsonian era promises only that we must continue to hope for some progressivism in Washington.
Tony Palmeri teaches in the Department of Communication at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. He can be reached at Palmeri@uwosh.edu