When Jim Jeffords switched his party affiliation in 2001, wresting the US Senate from Republican control, grateful Democrats started buying bumper stickers that read, “Don’t Mess with Texas” — except the word “Texas” had been X-ed out and replaced with the word, “Vermont.”
It was a cheeky bit of word play, and a reminder to Bush that even a pebble can stop a tank, if it gets wedged in there just right.
But if you step back for a moment and look at the last five years as a whole, something becomes pretty clear pretty fast: Vermont’s oppositional role to this administration, and the forces behind it, is far larger and much more enduring than Jefford’s move alone. Here are the highlights: In April of 2000, the Vermont Legislature passes landmark civil unions legislation. In May of 2001, Jeffords makes his move, and the Bush agenda grinds to a halt in the Senate. In 2003 and 2004, Howard Dean rides a wave of anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment to national prominence, and finally in 2005, the Chairmanship of the DNC. And throughout this period, Senator Pat Leahy is using his seniority on the Judiciary Committee to slow, and in more than one case stop, the confirmation of unqualified or ideologically extreme candidates for the Federal Bench.
What this looks like to me, when I put it all of these seemingly unrelated events together, is a shadow administration, contemporaneous with that of George W. Bush but in strong and continuous opposition to it. This shadow administration began as a homegrown phenomenon, but the logic and the courage of its local aspects has led to sustained national backing from a center-left coalition across the United States.
In other words, it is no accident that Howard Dean became the official spokesperson for the Democratic Party establishment. Far from it. Dean’s installation was a logical next step in a process of political clarification, a process underway not just in Burlington and Brattleboro, but in Binghamton and Buloxi and Bakersfield. What is being clarified is a political vision to contest that being offered by the Republican majorities in the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the White House. These majorities preceded George W. Bush, and the vision they represent is larger than Bush the man, although he is their most concentrated expression. Similarly, Dean’s rise is not about Internet fund-raising, or blogging, or greasing the palms of the state Democratic chairman. And it is not about Howard Dean the man. Dean has become the clarified expression of the opposing Vermont vision, and that Vermont vision has been ratified in no small part by the rest of the country. This has become harder to see as Republicans have had more success turning Dean into a one-liner, but it’s still true, all the same.
If you doubt that, consider civil unions. When Dean signed the Civil Union legislation in 2000, his critics predicted the fall of civilization. They predicted it would destroy Dean’s national political career. Four years later, civil unions seemed quaint and old-fashioned compared to same-sex marriage, and both Dick Cheney and George Bush endorsed civil unions prior to the vote last November.
How does that happen in a five-year period? It can only happen in response to a vision of America that strikes a majority of Americans as socially and morally just. It can only happen in response to a vision that is aggressive and unafraid to square off against deeply entrenched power in all three major branches of federal government.
It can only happen, to put it bluntly, in Vermont.