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A Check and Balance of One

May 25, 2001



The conscientious decision by Vermont's Sen. James Jeffords to switch political loyalties, officially becoming an independent, affirms his long inclination toward that stance. It also shows how the scales of political power in Washington, so evenly balanced, can shift dramatically with just one person.

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Whether it's in Congress or the Supreme Court, the ability of one or two individuals to switch their positions provides just the kind of check on power that the framers of the Constitution wanted.

Senator Jeffords's assertion of Vermont independent-mindedness reveals once again the close, down-the-middle divisions among Americans reflected in last fall's presidential election.

But whether the fight is over one senator's loyalty or a few hundred votes in Florida, the dominant political party is forced to weigh compromises that should prevent excesses, allow people to work together better, and help reduce the political divide among Americans.

With Congress now divided between a Republican House and Democratic Senate, both parties will need to meet in the middle on controversial issues. If they again end up in gridlock, then at the next election voters can decide whom to blame.

What pushed this Green Mountain Republican over the edge? He himself took note of a number of areas where he not only disagreed with the administration and the GOP, but could sense himself increasingly at odds with them - the recently passed tax cut, judicial nominations, missile defense, education. Mr. Bush's weak commitment to bipartisanship in pushing his ideas was certainly a factor. The sharp signal Jeffords sends should force some rethinking among politicians, particularly on the need to come together, even if only to agree to disagree.

The fact he hemmed and hawed so long reveals the difficulty of Jeffords's decision - just as it is difficult for the increasing numbers of independent voters to choose among Democratic and Republican candidates. Both parties have co-opted many of the other's views and fought to command the middle ground. Distinctions are blurred, confusing voters.

An independent streak in politicians may be just what voters want. That trait would certainly be welcomed in Supreme Court justices, many of whom seem set in ideological stone.

The Jefford switch also raises questions about a weakening two-party system. Candidates raise most of their campaign money these days, and that makes for less party - and more donor - loyalty. Whatever his motives for being a Republican turncoat and at least a temporary savior for the Democrats, Jeffords's move may just give bipartisanship a boost.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor