Having enacted their pivotal budget and tax cut legislation, the Republicans, intentionally or not, offend liberal Vermont GOP Sen. Jim Jeffords enough that he turns "independent" and rolls toward the Democrats. But this gift horse is a political Trojan horse.
The Democrats, falling into the trap, take over as the majority party in the Senate, thus freeing President Bush from being responsible for pushing through his agenda. But he can now blame the Democrats for obstructionism of the most venal order. What's even more cunning, the Democrats won't be able to resist shooting themselves in the foot by proposing outlandish spending plans and other ill-conceived legislation-such as new health-care legislation brought to you by Hillary Clinton.
And, of course, the Democrats, being the self-righteous lawmakers they are, will further alienate the American people by lecturing to them about what's in their best interest.
Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who will be the new majority leader of the Senate, declared on NBC's "Meet the Press" the other Sunday that President Bush's proposal for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was "finished."
What will be fun to watch is that the Democrats no longer have any restraints. When President Clinton presided, the unruly Democrats toed the line. Now they are on their own and ready to head off in a thousand directions. The Republicans' plan to send a mole into the Democratic camp counted on such disunity.
Sen. Robert J. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, sensed what his querulous party is in for. "There's the chance to promote our agenda," he told The New York Times, "but also to raise expectations too high, and to attempt to do too much that we cause our own fractures."
As the Times warned, "the risk for Mr. Daschle is that enough Democrats will desert him on big issues that Republicans will be able to label Mr. Bush the centrist and the Democrats left-leaning radicals."
What the Republicans are especially counting on is for the Democrats to oppose everything that President Bush does, which they have pretty much been doing. But now that the Democrats are no longer the minority party, they will soon be seen as mean-spirited obstructionists without a meaningful agenda of their own.
Andrew Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, was busy laying the groundwork for this line of attack. Mr. Card said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that Mr. Daschle's only agenda is "an agenda of `no."'
Realize that the Republicans were going to lose control of the Senate sooner or later anyway. With GOP Sen. Strom Thurman old and ailing, it was only a matter of time. What the Republicans accomplished is that they controlled the process at their own pace.
I know Sen. Jeffords couldn't possibly have really abandoned the Republican party. President Bush hasn't done anything he did not promise he'd do during his campaign. And if Sen. Jeffords' political sensibilities were offended under the current regime, how could he have survived as a Republican when Newt Gingrich was riding high in Congress and the party?
I feel like Stuart Elliott asking all these questions, and I'm not even a kid from Brooklyn. But I must ask another: Why didn't the Republicans put on a full-court press to bring Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia into the fold to offset the Jeffords move? No. 1: They can count on Sen. Miller's vote anyway. No. 2: They don't want to regain the Senate majority.
Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said President Bush now can go on the offensive against a new adversary-the Democratic Senate. "He won't have to spend the 2002 congressional campaign explaining to a not-always-attentive electorate why a president whose party controls Congress is unable to bring dramatic change. Now he can happily rail against `the do-nothing 107th."'
The Republicans, of course, aren't overly concerned that the Democrats will do any real harm. That made the Jeffords "defection" a first-rate political Trojan horse. After all, President Bush can always use his veto power. But let's hope the president is better at defining why the other guy's proposals are bad than he has been at explaining why his are good.