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Jewish World Review May 31, 2001 / 9 Sivan, 5761

Chris Matthews

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A country that is slowly and steadily coming apart -- JIM JEFFORDS is the latest American politician to feel the local pressure of this country's divisive geography. This Vermont Yankee's discomfort with the present-day Republican Party is typical of what's happening nationwide.

If you're from the Northeast or the West, your neighbors are secular in their politics, pro-choice on abortion, tolerant-to-liberal in their social values. If you're from the heartland that binds the Bible Belt to the Rocky Mountains, your world most likely is pro-gun, pro-life and Christian conservative.

As a Republican, Jeffords is the odd man out, not just in New England but in the Northeast generally. His Green Mountain State gets greener ever year with new arrivals from New York. Bernard Sanders, a Brooklyn native, went to live there in the late 1960s. Today, he's the only self-proclaimed socialist in the U.S. Congress.

Vermonters have shown their liberal tilt on a wide range of matters.

Vermont was the only state to reject the flag-burning amendment to the Constitution.

It decided to recognize civil unions between partners of the same sex.

Here's how the Almanac of American Politics sizes up Jefffords' constituency:

"Vermont, proclaiming its desire to preserve the environment and the past, has attracted left-leaning migrants from New York and elsewhere, willing to pay higher taxes and higher prices for the privilege of living in a seemingly pristine setting where the governor tries to confine Wal-Marts to the existing tiny downtowns."

This explains why Jeffords has gained in state polls since distancing himself from the Texas-based presidency of George W. Bush. It explains why a Yankee would split from a party that no long represents his moderate, tolerant, conservationist roots.

Jeffords' discomfort with the Grand Old Party is endemic of a country that is re-aligning itself along geographic rather than historic divides. Once the Democrats' "solid South," the former states of the Confederacy are now the strongest Republican region in the country. Once the political base of Abraham Lincoln, the north is now the domain of Ted Kennedy, Joe Lieberman and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Pacific Coast has seen the same dramatic shift. Not too many years ago, Republicans practically owned the California governorship. There were governors named Earl Warren, Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. Today, such figures are a vanishing breed. Of the six senators from the Pacific states, just one is Republican.

This is the same red-vs.-blue map that narrowly elected Bush. If Jim Jeffords feels he is a bad fit with the Bible-Belted, pro-oil party of George W. Bush, he has many sympathizers in the Northeast and West. More and more, this country's politics are being balkanized into two very different countries that have little use for the home boy who no longer thinks like his neighbors.

The Jim Jeffords story is not about backroom Washington politics. It's about a country that is slowly and steadily coming apart.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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