Hubris and Nemesis: the Jeffords Defection

In her 1999 essay
"Antigone's Flaw" for the journal Humanitas, Patricia M. Lines wrote,

...deliberation [is] essential to the political process. Political deliberation requires listening and persuading, engaging and being engaged. Success depends, above all, on compromise. That is, it requires yielding here and there to the opposition, and winning some concession here and there in return....The greatest obstacle to this kind of deliberation is hubris.

It is precisely this kind of hubris of which George W. Bush and his administration have been guilty in their first five months in office.

Nemesis was the goddess of divine retribution, punishing execessive pride, undeserved happiness, and absence of moderation. Bush's unlikely nemesis may be the avuncular senator from Vermont, James Jeffords. On Thursday May 24 Jeffords announced, "In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an Independent." Jeffords agreed to work with Democrats on organizational issues, effectively handing them a 50-49 majority in the senate. Organizational control includes the ability to determine committee chairs and set the legislative agenda.

Following Jeffords defection, Washington veterans agreed that Bush will have to enage more with Democrats, and those Republicans who do not blindly support his policies. Robert S Strauss, a longtime Democratic operative, told the Washington Post, "I think bipartisanship requires a different definition now. He could get by by picking off a half-dozen [Senate] Democrats, as he's done successfully. Now, he has a much more difficult burden and will have to work with a whole lot more people," meaning in particular Democratic leadership and committee chairs in the senate. Chief among the forces Bush will now have to contend with is the new majority leader, Senator Tom Daschle, whose mentor, George Mitchell of Maine, blocked many of Bush's father's initiatives or forced presidential vetoes.

Having lost the popular vote to Al Gore, and waited 36 days to be awarded the election by the Supreme Court, Bush nonetheless claimed during his transition, "I believe the reason I'm standing here is because of the agenda I articulated during the course of the campaign. And I intend to take that agenda . . . to the halls of Congress." No doubt it was such remarks that Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (a Republican) had in mind when he said recently, "it is not very smart to say, 'I'm a conservative, and I don't care what the results are. I'm going to govern the way I want to govern.'" Senator John McCain was no less critical in his May 24 statement, saying "Perhaps those self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty will learn to respect honorable differences among us, learn to disagree without resorting to personal threats, and recognize that we are a party large enough to accommodate something short of strict unanimity on the issues of the day. Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party, and it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up."

"What I thought he would do when he became president was to do what he said during the campaign: to lead from the middle," former Vice President Walter F. Mondale told the New York Times. "You always try to find common ground. If he had done that, he'd be amazed at how popular he would be."

But the White House's official posture is defiant and unrepentant. Officials insisted to the New York Times that the president would continue to attempt to force his agenda through congress, coaxing individual conservative Democrats into supporting his positions, and disregarding moderates in his own party. Mr. Jeffords actions, in the official view, are merely the latest demonstration that he does not really belong in the Republican Party. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer declared him "quirky," and Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Gilmore derided Jeffords as "very liberal." Appearing on CNN's Larry King Live Thursday night, top Bush political advisor Karl Rove called Jeffords "disingenuous," and implied that Jeffords actions were unprincipled. "If there's something else that turns out to have been part of motivation here, I think people will be disappointed.... There's a lot of conversation around this town and we'll see -- about committee chairs and deals and bargains and pledges," he said.

Jeffords himself refuted what he characterized as Rove's "spinning," saying, "While some might find it convenient to describe my decision in terms they can understand, such tactics should be seen for what they are."

The administration's recalcitrance validates, to some extent, Senator McCain's accusations that Jeffords,"was unfairly targeted for abuse, usually anonymously, by shortsighted party operatives from their comfortable perches in K Street offices, and by some Republican members of Congress and their staff." Some observers blame Rove, chief of staff Andrew Card, and counselor Karen Hughes for mishandling the Jeffords defection. They are also the triumvirate that will have major responsibility for dealing with the political aftermath. As the New York Times observed, "there were plenty of people in Washington, even many Republicans, happy to see these aides taken down a notch....[T]hey have talked an excellent game in preaching unity, bipartisanship and inclusiveness but have handled Congress in a rough, even presumptuous manner."

Others have suggested that the real question is not so much what happens to the Bush agenda, but what happens to the Republican Party. Democrats have pointed to the Jeffords incident as evidence that Republican Party positions on many issues are well to the right of the general public. Despite concerns voiced by some Republicans that they must now act to demonstrate the bipartisanship that is such a fixture of administration rhetoric, neither senate Republican leadership nor the administration appeared inclined to moderate their positions.

In her essay on Antigone that we quoted above, Patricia Lines suggests that Antigone's hubris is her self-righteousness. Her single-mindedness excludes everything else. And as the play progresses, "rather than see any flaw or limitation in her own understanding, Antigone only becomes more extreme in her certainty....Antigone ... might have avoided her tragic fate had she paid attention to and entered into discussion with others. To remain tragic, her story depended on a weak and inadequate recognition of her own failing." Lines quotes John Locke, a leading advocate of government by consent, in asserting that the search for truth demands that each individual

talk and consult with others, even such as come short ... in capacity, quickness and penetration; for ... no one sees all and we generally have different prospects of the same thing according to our different ... positions to it. (John Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding)

Locke's comments highlight the principle that "mutual consultation is needed before ... choosing the right action....Self certainty is the chief obstacle to this kind of deliberation.... True believers, religious or secular, seek to replace deliberative politics with eternal principles. Such persons admit of just one right answer. Premises are beyond questioning. Defining political questions as exclusively governed by immutable principles of right eliminates all need for further, often troublesome debate."

One can only hope that as the power in the U.S. Senate shifts, one of two things will happen. If the administration can be drawn into deliberative politics there's a chance that real progress can be made on items such as a realistic energy plan, funds for education, the patients' bill of rights, and the appointment of moderates to the judiciary. If they refuse, the electorate may well replace the figure of Jim Jeffords as Nemesis, and reward the administration's hubris by routing them from office, or at least continuing to shift the balance of power.


Lines, Patricia M. "Antigone's Flaw" HUMANITAS, (1999) 12.1.

Broder, David S. "Bush's Tougher Leadership Challenge" Washington Post 25 May 2001

Milbank, Dana "Bush 'Respectfully' Disagrees With Jeffords's Party Switch" Washington Post 24 May 2001.

Allen, Vicki "Democrats Control Senate As Republican Quits" Reuters. 24 May 2001.

"Mr. Bush's Fumble" Editorial. NY Times 25 May 2001

Berke, Richard L. "A Question of Governing From the Right" NY Times 25 May 2001.

Milbank, Dana and Amy Goldstein "Bush to Pursue Unaltered Agenda" Washington Post 26 May 2001.