WASHINGTON — As Republicans in Washington awoke Thursday to the reality that they would soon lose control of the Senate, they examined the workings of the new Bush White House to divine what went wrong and to answer the question: Who lost Jeffords?
One wrong turn after another was cited in the aftermath of the decision by Sen. James M. Jeffords to become an independent, throwing control of the Senate to the Democrats: the slight that occurred when he was not invited to the White House for a ceremony honoring a constituent as the teacher of the year; the failure to heed his interest in providing money for special education; and, indeed, overlooking his role as chairman of the Senate committee handling education legislation.
But in the end there may have been little that any Republican could have done to keep Jeffords in the party. From his own words, it appears his disaffection had been growing for some time.
That did not stop the blame game. Among Republicans in the Capitol, in the White House, aboard Air Force One with the traveling president, and among lobbyists and political consultants, a daylong barrage erupted across the capital.
Republicans placing blame pointed to President Bush, as the commander of his party. They pointed to the senior White House staff, an amalgam of old Washington hands and Washington rookies who have long ties to the new president. There were complaints that the Republican Senate leaders were deaf to the interests of their moderates.
For his part, Jeffords put it this way:
"Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I'll disagree with the president on very fundamental issues--the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues, large and small," Jeffords said in Vermont.
"I understand that many people are more conservative than I am, and they form the Republican Party. Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them," he said.
In looking at the Republican landscape, few would speak on the record, choosing to dish out their blame anonymously.
One who did speak for attribution, Richard Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, made this recommendation to the Bush team about its future operations: Pay attention to other Republican senators, most notably Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and John McCain of Arizona, who might also feel unwanted in the party.
Emphasizing his reluctance to criticize the president's senior aides, he would say nothing else.
Rich Williamson, an Illinois Republican who held several senior posts in the Ronald Reagan administration, said there was a lesson to be learned in the efforts of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, a fellow Illinois Republican, to listen to the party's backbenchers. His implied message: The Senate Republican leadership, under soon-to-be-former Majority Leader Trent Lott, and the Bush White House, failed to make the moderates a part of the party.
But across the spectrum of Republicans in Washington--including several who, over the last 20 years, had played crucial roles in the White House West Wing, working just beyond the Oval Office--one criticism bubbled up, as though the Jeffords flap made it suddenly acceptable to air the family's laundry:
The president was ill-served, they said, by senior aides who had engineered a presidential campaign that threw out an incumbent party but who were now operating smugly as though they had little to learn from those who had come before.
And so, even among these Republicans, some of whom try to maintain frequent contact with Bush's aides and thus would not speak on the record, there was a sense that a failure to compromise--and to play by some of the rules of Washington--had brought the Bush White House to its first knee-skinning stumble.
"What they didn't have was an early warning system," said one Republican who has held senior positions in previous Republican White Houses. This could have alerted the president that Jeffords' complaints reflected potentially serious problems--and not just irksome behavior that cried out for political discipline.
Instead, he said, "what they had were people being loyal to George W. Bush who did not recognize that senators are independent."
Likening the mistakes to those of the Clinton White House when the previous president first took office and focused largely on Democratic loyalists, he said: "They spent more time talking to their Republican base than they did reaching out and building new coalitions."
White House staffers and some other Republicans said the defection was Jeffords' doing and not their fault.