In the summer of 2001, the late Sen. Jim Jeffords from Vermont left the Republican Party, declared himself an independent and caucused with the Democrats, giving the Dems a 51-seat majority in the upper chamber. Jeffords, a lifelong Republican who had served seven terms in the House before winning three Senate races, told supporters that he had struggled with “the changing nature of the national party” and that “in order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles that I have stood for my whole life,” he would leave it.
Today, the proximate causes of Jeffords’ break with the GOP seem downright quaint. He strongly opposed what he saw as the fiscal recklessness of President Bush’s mammoth tax cuts, and was appalled when Senate Republicans refused to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which he had supported as a member of the House back in 1975.
Sixteen years later, many Republicans privately express deep concerns over Donald Trump’s temperament, lack of experience and propensity for sparking diplomatic crises with impromptu rants on Twitter. Some are as concerned as their Democratic counterparts about signals that the administration is bent on undermining the Atlantic security alliance and forming closer ties with Russia. Others are alarmed by his attacks on the judiciary, and the perception that he’s a thin-skinned, self-obsessed authoritarian.
Some have come forward to offer public statements condemning Trump’s travel ban or some of his more inflammatory tweets, but the usual political incentives keep them from going further than that. While Trump’s the least popular newly elected president in the history of polling, nearly nine in ten Republicans either “approve” or “strongly approve” of the job he’s done so far, according to the latest Politico/Morning Consult poll. As long as the base remains behind the president, Republican officeholders can grumble, but they’re constrained from voting against his less qualified nominees or otherwise standing up to his agenda. This is true for the party as a whole; as long as they have unified control of the federal government, and the base is behind Trump, aggressive oversight of the administration will prove elusive.
But this is a moment in history that provides some unusual incentives. If just three GOP Senators had the courage to cross the aisle and caucus with Democrats, they would find themselves in a position to defend our institutions and the norms that have made them more or less functional for more than 200 years, protect the international alliances that have served American interests well in the post-World War II era and assure that our federal agencies are headed by competent, qualified people. (It must have been somewhat embarrassing to confirm Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development only eight weeks after Carson said through a spokesperson that he was unqualified for the job.)
Just three individuals could restore the checks and balances that are clearly so necessary with an administration headed by a reality-TV star who seems to have little knowledge of, or interest in, public policy. The resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s erstwhile National Security Advisor, for discussing U.S. sanctions with Russia before the president was sworn in, only highlights the vital need for independent oversight of this White House. Important questions remain, but the chairmen of both the House Oversight and Intelligence Committees indicated that they have little interest in investigating the matter, and Politico reported that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, “largely responded to Flynn’s resignation by highlighting the retired lieutenant general’s record of public service and offering deference to Trump.”
A Senate controlled by Democrats wouldn’t reflexively defer to Trump. It would investigate Trump’s alleged conflicts of interests and assure that he isn’t violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. It would check those items on Trump’s agenda that fall outside the mainstream. At the same time, as “independent Republicans,” lawmakers who were to cross the aisle could still join their GOP colleagues in supporting traditional Republican priorities. In the 107th Congress, Democratic leaders released Jim Jeffords to vote as he wished.
John McCain would be an obvious candidate to flip. The traditional foreign policy realist already enjoys the “maverick” brand. His feuds with Trump are well-documented. Last October, he renounced his support for his party’s nominee following the release of Trump’s recorded comments about grabbing women by their genitals, saying, “It’s not pleasant for me. … But I have daughters. I have friends. … They cannot be degraded and demeaned in that fashion.” Or Lindsey Graham, who responded to Republicans’ embrace of Trump by calling him “the most dishonest person in America,” and lamenting that his party had “gone batshit crazy.” What about Susan Collins, who refused to vote for Trump because she was so worried that his “lack of self-restraint and his barrage of ill-informed comments would make an already perilous world even more so”? Or Lisa Murkowski, who overcame a primary loss to a Tea Party challenger to win re-election as a write-in. She resigned a leadership position in the state party because she couldn’t stomach supporting Trump.
These are only a few of the GOP senators who have expressed deep misgivings about where the country is headed, and the majority of Americans who don’t support Donald Trump – or the movement he leads – need at least three of them to put country before party and stand up to the administration. At a minimum, one would hope that a handful of Republican Senators are thinking hard about what Trump would have to do to force their hand.
Jim Jeffords was the first senator in history to change the balance of power in the upper chamber, but it’s not unprecedented in state capitals. Eight New York state senators who were elected as Democrats currently caucus with the Republicans, giving the Grand Old Party a veto on policy that the solidly blue state’s electorate never voted for.
It would take guts to do the same in D.C.’s hyper-polarized environment. Many Republicans would see it as treason. When Jeffords retired after three decades on Capitol Hill, only one of his former colleagues took the floor to praise him in keeping with the tradition in the upper chamber.
But today, some Republicans who are skeptical of Trump would understand – and even applaud – the move. And of course they would become heroes to millions of Americans who fear for their futures under this president. It’s also very likely that in the future, history would look back kindly on their courage in defense of the republic.