Acts of true political courage are infrequent in Washington. Politicians are loathe to commit to taking stands that are against the grain or out of their comfort zone. Yet 16 years ago a Republican U.S. Senator from Vermont named Jim Jeffords derailed newly elected President George W. Bush’s agenda early on in his first term by switching his allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democrats on May 24, 2001.
It was a fateful decision that changed the balance of power in the upper chamber of Congress—and his example should be heeded by those in his party today.
It was a controversial move for Jeffords, who died in 2014, and one that earned him no small amount of criticism. Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, who lost his majority leadership, called it a “coup of one” and said that the Vermont Senator had subverted the will of the American people. But Jeffords stuck to his guns on the basis that the GOP platform had gone too far out of bounds in what was acceptable to the moderate center of American politics.
“Increasingly,” Jeffords said, “I find myself in disagreement with my party. I understand that many people are more conservative than I am, and they form the Republican Party. 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.”
The Republican Party in 2017 is not the party of 2001. Jeffords, were he still alive, would hardly recognize it. President Donald Trump’s brief time in office has already led a number of scandals and a list of policy priorities as cruel and vicious as they are destructive. Above all, the president’s tenure has been defined by the vulgarity of his public persona.
Denying Trump his legislative agenda would be a necessary corrective for his behavior. That’s why Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Dean Heller—all of whom have already expressed hesitance toward at least some of the president’s agenda—should leave the Senate GOP caucus immediately and take the majority away from Trump’s lackey, Sen. Mitch McConnell.
The senators are primed for a rejection of the Trump agenda. Each has expressed hesitance to sign on to the Trump healthcare bill making its way through the Senate, with Heller jumping out ahead of the other two and telling reporters he could not vote for the legislation on June 23. Murkowski followed Heller on June 26 and announced she didn’t have enough information to support the bill. But it’s unlikely she will support the law anyway given her June 16 pledge to protect Planned Parenthood funding, a position that puts her far to the left of her own party.
Collins has made her distaste for the direction of her party under Trump known in recent months—she called the president’s travel ban “not the right way to go” in early June and “contrary to our American values” when the executive order was first announced in January. The president’s tweets and vulgar behavior don’t impress the senator either; “this has to stop” was Collins’ response to Trump’s recent comments about MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski (“Stop it,” said Murkowski).
In practical terms, Murkowski, Collins, and Heller are all that remains of the moderate Republican tradition in the Senate. They have ample reasons to make the jump to the other side. But it’s an uphill climb—extreme partisanship and the deep pockets of their possible adversaries on the right could make such a move a disaster.
Each of the three senators has a reason to fear their own. Murkowski was successfully primaried by the Tea Party and Sarah Palin backed Joe Miller in 2010 and only won re-election that year on a write in campaign. Heller is already suffering from attack ads in Nevada from right wing groups who won’t give him another chance now that he’s betrayed Trump. The governor of Maine, Paul Le Page, has said that Collins’ refusal to endorse Trump in 2016 means she’s “done” in the state.
And this is while they stay in the party—there are reasons to believe the backlash could be even worse, and possibly lethal, should they lose. Political violence towards lawmakers, never truly on the wane in America, has crept back into the public sphere since the shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise in June. Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords being shot in an Arizona parking lot in 2011 is also likely on Congressional minds.
Yet for all the challenges the three could gain politically, or at least not lose, from the move. Murkowski won’t face voters again until 2022. Collins comes from one of the most independently minded of New England states and won’t run again until 2020. Running in 2018 as an independent in Nevada might be an improvement for Dean Heller over running as a Republican in a state that went to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
But beyond the calculations of political expediency, the reality is that Trump’s increasingly unhinged and abusive behavior must be met with real consequences. The president regularly behaves in a manner unbefitting of his office yet faces no legislative reprimand for his actions.
Yes, Republicans frequently take to the airwaves and to the floors of their respective chambers to decry the president’s behavior. But the act is wearing thin: GOP Congressional leaders appear to have no interest in doing anything of substance to stop the president from continuing his social media rampages—not if it means slowing the president’s agenda.
Collins, Heller, and Murkowski should make the Jeffords move to let the president know that his version of the Republican Party is not theirs. And they will let him know that they’re willing to stand up for their principles even when they have to let go of the “R” beside their name in the ballot box.
Otherwise, all this posturing is as empty as a promise from the president. If this isn’t the party these moderate Republicans believe they belong to, they need to act like it. That means walking away from the party Jeffords left behind all those years ago.
Follow Eoin Higgins on Twitter.