The man who created the current Democratic majority in the Senate came to Yale Friday.
Senator James Jeffords ’58 of Vermont, whose decision to leave the Republican party in May gave Democrats control of one house of Congress, addressed first a standing-room-only crowd in Luce Hall and then a smaller group of undergraduates. He shared the motivations behind his decision to declare himself an Independent, the ways people have responded to his decision and his opinions on current issues being debated in Congress.
“If you have the power to dramatically change the course of history and don’t, the consequences weigh on you and you alone,” Jeffords said of his headline-making move in May.
Jeffords said that after the close 2000 elections that divided the Senate equally between Democrats and Republicans, he had hoped moderate positions would dominate. He said he was optimistic after moderates from both parties were able to cooperate on the budget proposal in April.
But Jeffords said he quickly learned that conference committees which finalize bills passed by both houses had tremendous power and were dominated by Republicans.
“Any moderation in the Senate would go to conference committee and be ‘house-cleaned,'” Jeffords said. “It was a clear sign to me the Republican leadership was unwilling to work with moderates.”
So, earlier this year on May 24, Jeffords announced in his “Declaration of Independence” that he was leaving the Republican party and registering as an Independent, ending Republican control of both the White House and the two chambers of Congress.
He received a flurry of both accolades and criticism after his announcement.
A Vermont brewery, Magic Hat Brewing Co., named a beer after Jeffords.
But Jeffords said his son warned him against leaving the Republican party, and threatened to name Jeffords’ first grandchild Reagan Nixon as a punishment.
Jeffords also received more public criticism, and he quoted a critical Wall Street Journal piece that said: “Not everyone gets to wake up one morning and decide an inner voice has told him to overturn the results of a national election.”
Despite these negative reactions, Jeffords stands by his choice.
“I have never felt more confident and secure of any decision in my life,” Jeffords said.
After outlining the events surrounding this decision, Jeffords answered questions about a range of issues.
He expressed concern about military action in Afghanistan, and said he believes the definition of victory is unclear. Jeffords also stressed the need for humanitarian aid.
“We have to do something other than just kill,” he said.
When asked about the flaws in the two-party structure, Jeffords said he does not think the strengthening of a third party is the solution to partisan problems.
“I think it’s more important that parties become more flexible,” Jeffords said.
He had praise for the debate that arises out of party competition.
“You have people who have different ideas and you try to find common ground. That’s where the moderates come in,” Jeffords said.
Jeffords spent a lot of time discussing education reform, an issue he has concentrated on throughout his career. His statements on education often conflicted with traditional positions of the Republican party he left.
For example, he said he opposes school vouchers.
“I don’t like things that are set up to undermine the public school system,” he said.
He advocated significant additional federal funding for education, and proposed allocating the budget for the missile defense system to education.
“I’ll take all the money out of that and put it in education — trillion bucks, not bad,” Jeffords said.
Ellen Jacobson ’04 said she enjoyed the talk.
“I thought he did a good job holding his ground and illustrating he wasn’t a Democrat,” Jacobson said.
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