The Washington Times

It was, in point of fact, odd that national elections ending essentially in a tie should yield a White House, Senate and House of Representatives all under the control of the same party. That outward appearance of one-party dominance masked, it’s now clear, a substantial amount of instability underneath. Al Gore’s challenge to George W. Bush’s victory in Florida was probably a product of, more than anything else, the instability produced by the evenly divided electorate. Mr. Gore failed. But so, too, was GOP control of the Senate highly unstable, and Tom Daschle succeeded.

Republicans probably overestimated the stability, out of the understandable spirit of wishful thinking. Everyone, Democrat and Republican, had an eye on the health of Sen. Strom Thurmond, whose replacement would be selected by the Democratic governor of South Carolina, if it came to that. But such an eventuality wasn’t really something anyone could do anything about, one way or the other. Therefore, Republicans would preside over the evenly divided chamber on account of Vice President Cheney’s constitutional authority to cast the deciding vote – unless God Himself disturbed the GOP’s 50 seats by calling Strom home.

Sen. Daschle, among others, saw at least one additional potential route to the majority leader’s job. Republicans have been preoccupied with the question of who lost Jim Jeffords. Was it an arrogant White House, an insensitive Republican leader in the Senate, the simple fact that Mr. Jeffords is irreconcilably more liberal than most Republicans? These recriminations are all very well, but I think a better question than how the Republicans lost Mr. Jeffords is how Mr. Daschle won him. It must have started with a vision of the possibility of such a thing, and it’s striking that Republicans didn’t envision that possibility also.

But the first big Democratic victory of the Bush administration is only part of the story. Although people have been going on about Mr. Jeffords’ departure from the GOP in apocalyptic terms – as compelling evidence that Republicans have become a regional party of the South and West, their conservatism alienating voters on the coasts and throughout the Rust Belt – reports of the demise of the Republicans are premature.

Let’s start with the obvious: Mr. Jeffords left the Republican Party, but he did not join the Democratic Party. He didn’t switch. He became an independent. This is symbolic, but the symbolism is revealing. Mr. Jeffords might have had all kinds of practical reasons not to become a Democrat. But the fact that he didn’t is an indication that while Republicans are unlikely to be consolidating a national majority anytime soon, neither are Democrats. Mr. Jeffords’ decision reflects the even division of the electorate that manifest itself in November in this detail also: He is no longer a Republican, but he is not a Democrat. Mr. Daschle doesn’t have a mandate any more than Mr. Bush had one – the absence of which, of course, will stop neither from working to advance an agenda designed both to reflect their convictions and to be popular.

Second, Mr. Bush just won a huge legislative victory, a big tax cut. And Mr. Jeffords voted for it, as did 12 Democrats. The policy environment in Washington, in short, is not to Mr. Daschle’s specifications. Democratic control of the Senate will help reshape that policy environment, but it will also be shaped by it. Mainstream opinion in the country and in the Congress does not tilt nearly as far to the left as the Democratic congressional leadership. Mr. Daschle has some room to maneuver, but not unlimited room. There aren’t, for example, 58 votes in the Senate to increase the top marginal tax rate by 4.6 percentage points – the number of votes the decrease in the top rate of that size just received.

Third, Mr. Bush is fairly popular, and he is hardly out of issues. Momentum has been gathering in the Washington policy world for several years in favor of military reform and defense budget increases (see the Gore campaign proposals on defense spending, for example). It’s not a Bush issue as such, but a ripening issue that Mr. Bush has picked in the expectation that, properly managed, it will both improve policy and be politically useful. That sentiment is widely shared by both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. There may be other such issues. How important is it to drill on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge if you can have legislation authorizing exploration elsewhere, massive new power-plant construction, etc.?

The Jeffords case is, above all, a reflection of the even division of the electorate. The doubts about Republicans that some voters harbor are matched doubt for doubt in other voters in doubts about Democrats. The closeness of the division produces political anomalies and oddities ranging from a presidential impeachment and acquittal to the election of a dead man to the United States Senate (on the promise that the seat would go to his widow) to Al Gore’s Florida post-election campaign. The Jeffords semi-switch belongs in this line, and it is probably not the last of its kind.