As the Senate returns to work and faces a fistful of thorny issues — from upgrading infrastructure to upholding voting rights — the ghost of a man named Jim Jeffords haunts the Capitol.
Jeffords, who died in 2014, served three terms as a senator from Vermont. And 20 years ago, in May of 2001, he rocked the political world.
At that point, the Senate was equally divided between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, just as it is now. Because George W. Bush was president, however, Vice President Dick Cheney could break ties, so Republicans controlled the chamber.
Jeffords was a classic progressive New Englander in a Republican Party whose center of gravity was shifting to the South, to the West, and especially to the right.
“Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party,” he stated. “Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them.”
Finally, that tension overwhelmed Jeffords. He left the GOP, became an independent and threw his support to the Democrats. Overnight, Tom Daschle of South Dakota replaced Trent Lott of Mississippi as majority leader, Democrats took over the committees, and Jeffords became head of the Environment and Public Works panel.
Republicans returned to power 18 months later, after winning a special election in Missouri. But Democrats should keep this history in mind as they navigate a deadlocked Senate and try to pass President Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda.
Today’s version of Jeffords is West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a 73-year-old former governor now serving his second Senate term. He’s the only Democrat to hold statewide office in West Virginia, which Donald Trump won by an astounding 39 points. And like Jeffords 20 years ago, he finds himself out of step with the “changing nature” of his own party and has an increasingly fractious relationship with its leaders.
Manchin aggravated his struggle by opposing a sweeping bill designed to counteract a concerted attack on voting rights launched by Republicans in state legislatures across the country. He joined nine other centrists — four Democrats and five Republicans — in supporting a compromise infrastructure bill that is far smaller than Biden’s original proposal, and he reiterated his staunch opposition to weakening the filibuster, which threatens to strangle many of Biden’s other initiatives.
Fellow Democrats are growing steadily impatient with their colleague.
“Of course I’m frustrated. Who isn’t frustrated?” one senator told Politico. “Do you want to see the patches where I pulled my hair out?”
Freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York accused Manchin of working “to preserve Jim Crow”-style segregationist laws.
Some of that frustration with Manchin is justified, since he claims to believe in federal protection for voting rights, but won’t support any practical way of suppressing the Republicans’ undemocratic and unjustified assaults on those rights.
But in their ire and irritation, Democrats have to remember Jeffords, and respect Manchin. He is the only Democrat who could win that Senate seat in West Virginia. Without him, their party would be in the minority — with zero chance of passing any of Biden’s agenda and a much-diminished ability to approve his nominations for federal judgeships.
Meanwhile, Republican strategists are actively contemplating efforts to induce Manchin to switch parties — and thus the balance of Senate power.
Writing in The Washington Post, GOP operative Marc Thiessen urged Donald Trump to call Manchin personally: “It is in Manchin’s interest to switch parties ... As a Republican, Manchin would still be the swing vote in the Senate, but in a much stronger position to pursue bipartisanship.”
Democrats should be gentle with Manchin for another reason: He represents a template for how the party can win enough elections to maintain a majority in Congress. In exit polls last November, 38% of Americans called themselves moderates (compared to 24% who identified as liberals), but that segment of American politics remains woefully underrepresented in Congress.
While leftists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez make a lot of noise and attract a lot of media coverage, they are not the key to the Democrats’ future success. Democrats can only win in many states by nominating pragmatic candidates like Terry McAuliffe, who just defeated four liberal rivals to win the party’s gubernatorial nomination in Virginia.
Joe Manchin might be a pain the neck, but without him, the Democrats would be dealing with Mitch McConnell as majority leader — a far more grievous source of dismay. So they’d better not forget Jim Jeffords.
(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.)