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. . . Or Jeffords's Principles?

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, May 30, 2001; Page A19

The debate over who lost Jim Jeffords shows with wonderful starkness the chasm between what regular people think politics is about and what Washington thinks politics is about. Regular people make the mistake of thinking politics is about substance; here in the capital, we know that process is everything.

Seen from the outside, Jeffords's decision to leave the Republican Party is a dire referendum on the GOP's march to the right. The Vermont senator pulled no punches in describing his sad sense that there was no longer any place, in the party of Trent Lott and George W. Bush, for a man who was conservative in the old, modest sense of favoring fiscal restraint and personal liberty and the conservation of resources. As if to emphasize the accuracy of Jeffords's view, Sen. Larry Craig told colleagues in the Republican caucus that it just went to show you how little point there was in trying to compromise with the "weak sisters" who call themselves Republican moderates.

But here on Planet Washington, Jeffords's departure is a referendum on the competence of the Bush White House. Letting him get away is seen as a procedural bungle, a failure of intelligence, a blunder in the manly art of tactical politics.

In a normal world, the right White House strategy would be to acknowledge and express regret for its slights to Jeffords. This would (a) advance the argument that he's just a petty man who made his switch for petty reasons, and (b) divert attention from the far more important criticism that the GOP has moved too far to the right.

But this is Washington, where the worst sins are failures of bureaucratic finesse. And the White House's palpable fear of being charged with clumsiness is compounded by its public relations strategy thus far. For the great armor of the Bush White House, until this time, has been its widespread reputation for competence. Washington -- including much of the press corps -- has been dazzled by its efficiency, its penchant for starting meetings on time and silencing dissenters and in general behaving as un-Clintonishly as possible.

At every turn, the administration has invited us to observe (in the formulation for which Mike Dukakis was so widely derided) its competence, not its ideology. See how we eschew blue jeans in the oval office! See how we march legislation through Congress! Observe the loyalty and buttoned lips of the White House staff! And at every turn, the press corps has rewarded the White House with lavish praise for its capability.

The loss of the Senate is now an opportunity for Bush to be measured, and found wanting, by the same insubstantial yardstick that has won him such high praise in the past. Hence the coverage has focused heavily on such White House missteps as excluding Jeffords from a ceremony honoring a Vermonter as teacher of the year, and failing to "reach out" to him, and threatening to throttle a dairy support program important to Vermont farmers.

Now, these slights are worth noting, as evidence of the arrogant, bullying edge that has accompanied this White House's early success. (Note that there's been scant talk of humility -- the virtue the Bushies love to extol -- in the administration's truculent response to Jeffords's departure.) But it's striking how zealously the press has battened on this story line -- understating, in the process, the extent to which Jeffords was motivated by the simple misery of being a moderate Republican under the leadership of Trent Lott. Jeffords himself told Newsweek, "I don't blame the president as much as I do the Senate leadership."

Because the short term is what counts here, and what determines the political parameters in which the administration will maneuver, these picayune accountings of tactical skill create their own reality. On this kabuki-theater level, the press and the political handicappers it quotes are describing a kind of truth. And on this level, there's no small pleasure in seeing the Bush White House hoist by the petard of its own preening insistence on its political finesse.

But this focus does minimize the larger truth, which is that even as we were all buzzing about who in the White House might have failed to return Olympia Snowe's phone calls on which fateful day, and whether Karl Rove or Andy Card is a worthier candidate for blame, Bush had just won his regressive, reckless $1.35 trillion tax cut -- the stoutest pillar of his conservative program. If he does nothing but officiate at T-ball games for the next 3 1/2 years, he will still have performed with an all too perfect competence.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company