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22.11.02

TomPaine.com is getting pretty excited about the idea that moderate Republicans could pull a Jeffords II and hand control of the Senate back to the Democrats. But I think this is a non-starter of an idea for several reasons. Most obviously, it won't ever happen. Jeffords' defection was nearly unprecedented, so to expect three Senators to do it at once is unlikely in the extreme. But if it did happen, it would be likely to be disastrous for the new Democratic majority. The howling from the right when Jeffords switched is nothing compared with the reaction to three Senators doing it again. And Jeffords couldn't even be accused of compromising national security, as he switched before September 11. Regaining control through party switches would leave the Democrats open to accusations of sneaky underhanded ways of gaining power, a charge they're already trying to shake after Gore's refusal to concede in 2000, the Jeffords incident, and alleged voter fraud in South Dakota. Conventional wisdom (on both sides of the aisle) says the election was a vote of confidence in the Republican Party, so switches would be cast as a betrayal of that mandate. This image would be impossible to shake if Democrats take the advice of Steve Cobble, who encouraged Jeffords' switch, to offer leadership positions as enticements.

It would be politically disastrous for the switchers as well. Vermont's independent-mindedness cushioned Jeffords' loss of party support (though the proof will be in his next reelection campaign). But Snowe, Chafee, and Specter can ill afford to lose Republican backing. The White House would no doubt hand-pick a challenger from the right, while Democrats would nominate one of their own out of distrust and the switcher's continuing moderate conservatism. The switchers would have few resources to draw on in resistance.

What would make more sense is to encourage Republican moderates to nominate someone like John McCain as majority leader. McCain is a diehard Republican (a dissappointing reality for all those on the left who insist on thinking he's going to go independent or become a Democrat) and a leader within the party, which would make him appealing to those who desired moderation but were leery of anything that seemed like an overturning of the Republican majority. He's also liberals' favorite Republican, making him far preferrable to Trent Lott, who is expected to get the job without question. McCain has a real history of bipartisan work, which would be a refreshing change from the partisan extremism of the last few decades' congressional leaders of either party. And he has the guts to challenge the White House, rather than letting party loyalty turn Congress into W's rubber stamp committee.

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