Moderates within the Vermont Republican Party are asserting themselves, with the choice of a new party chairman next month testing their power to affect the direction of the party.
A schism had already emerged between divergent factions of the party. The faction aligned with the current chairman, Jack Lindley, wanted to maintain good relations with the national party apparatus, discouraging the liberal tendencies of Vermont Republicans, in order to maintain the flow of campaign money from the national party to Vermont.
The other faction, whose chief spokesman is Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, believes that the national party has strayed too far to the right and wants to chart a more moderate course. Scott sees himself as following in the line of Vermont Republicans who included former Sens. George Aiken and Robert Stafford.
Candidates for party chairman have emerged representing each point of view. One of them might become chairman next month because Lindley remains hospitalized and his future as party leader is uncertain.
Scott has endorsed David Sunderland, the former House member from Rutland Town. Sunderland has been coy about labeling himself as either a conservative or a moderate. In a letter announcing his candidacy he said Vermonters deserved a party that listens to the people and supports candidates who offer a “Vermont way” to solve problems. The phrase “Vermont way” is often used as code for pragmatic, nonideological, moderate politics. Former Gov. James Douglas, who successfully navigated the divide between moderates and conservatives in his party, was fond of the phrase.
John MacGovern, a former state legislator in Masssachusetts, ran against Sen. Bernard Sanders last year, mounting a strong conservative critique that shared the aversion to taxes and big government identified with the national party. He also criticized Sanders for amassing a huge campaign war chest. His own campaign received no financial support from the state and national organizations of the party he now hopes to lead. As chairman he hopes to build a party that would field strong candidates and help them get elected.
Scott is the only holder of a statewide office among the state’s Republicans, which makes him the de facto leader of the party. As lieutenant governor, he has not carved out a partisan identity, presenting himself first as a Vermonter in sympathy with ordinary Vermonters. He has always shrunk from the harsh ideological tendencies of the national party, striving to lead Vermont Republicans in a different direction.
In citing the legacy of George Aiken, he summons memories of a different era. Aiken was U.S. senator at a time when the moderate wing of the Republican Party, with roots in the Northeast, was an important faction within the party. Famously, Aiken ate breakfast every morning with his friend, the Democratic majority leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana.
As the Republican Party has become more of a southern party, it has taken on the sharp edge that made itself felt in the economic blackmail practiced by congressional Republicans who engineered the government shutdown this fall. The career of another Vermont Republican, James Jeffords, presaged the divide afflicting the party today.
Jeffords, a longtime member of the House and Senate, abandoned the Republican Party in 2001 because he could no longer tolerate the conservative policies of President George W. Bush. He justified his transformation into an independent by saying he had not left the Republican Party; the party had left him.
For Scott to endorse Sunderland as party chairman sends a clear message that he believes Sunderland could steer the party away from the self-defeating, unworkable politics that have paralyzed the federal government and toward the kind of moderate politics that could allow Republicans to make a contribution in solving the many challenges involving budgets, debt, health care and other issues.
At the national level the party is asking the same questions as Vermont Republicans are: Can the party and the nation afford to follow demagogues such as Sen. Ted Cruz toward budget Armageddon in order to prove a point? Or wouldn’t the party and nation be better off with a party engaged in real problem-solving? Vermont Republicans will be able to weigh in on that question.
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