Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dance With the One That Brung Ya

My last post looked at the pitiful emerging story of a President, given a permanent (and prominent) place in the history books by the Democratic Party, who has apparently struck a deal to write off that party in an entire state. (Not that we are going quietly, Barry; just so you’re warned before the 2012 primary.) In this post, I want to talk about betrayal of a more overt and explicit sort, that of the party-switchers. This calls for more than a pained recital of the old country song that gives this post its title.

Since the November election, there has been a minor rash of defections of elected Democratic officials to the GOP. First, four members of the Alabama House of Representatives switched in November, less than a month after the election. Their defection gave the GOP a theoretically filibuster-proof supermajority in the House, that nearly came unraveled in “Bingo Bob” Riley’s “ethics” special session, when AEA leaned on the defectors hard enough that some balked at Riley’s anti-teacher legislation. Circuit judges in Marshall and Limestone Counties switched (though the Marshall County Republican Executive Committee voted a unanimous “not welcome” to the switcher there). The usual Republican media parrots all blared “TEN DEMOCRAT OFFICIALS SWITCH TO GOP” on a slow January news day. Only on reading the story did you learn that one large-county sheriff was the only one of note. I think the others were all constables or something in Covington County.

This phenomenon has been reported in the media without any real degree of historical perspective. Party switching in Alabama has been taking place for several decades, though never at any cataclysmic pace - not even today. Back in the late 1980’s, as Shelby County shifted from a reliably Democratic county (albeit of the George Wallace variety) to a Republican stronghold, Sheriff Buddy Glasgow and a couple of other local officials crossed into the Vale of Evil. Public Service Commission President Jim Sullivan, first appointed as a Democrat in 1983, switched to the GOP after his election to a second full term as a Democrat in 1988. Fob James made the switch to win in the national GOP surge of 1994, after his 1978 election as a Democrat, and 1986 and 1990 runs in the Democratic primary. Secretary of State Jim Bennett made the jump in 1995, after being one of a handful of victorious Democrats on the state ticket that year. Of course, that was after Richard Shelby waited until the day after the 1994 election (presumably to see which party would control the Senate) to announce his switch. Members of the Legislature have also made the switch before this year. The Alcibiades moment of Senator Larry Dixon was so far back in antiquity, he may have actually known Alcibiades. George Wallace, Jr., (who is actually George Wallace III) became a Republican between his unsuccessful run for Lieutenant Governor as a Democrat in 1994, and his successful run for the PSC as a Republican in 1998. And of course, we all remember Dr. Parker ... what was his last name again? The patient-killing guy from Huntsville?

Most of these defections have two things in common. One, they are always made in the name of conservative values which the defector suddenly realizes are a Republican monopoly. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me ...” Secondly, and substantially eroding the credibility of the first, they come on the heels of some perceived erosion of Democratic electability at the national, state or local level. The point here, and it bears reminding a forgetful media, is that an environment that triggers switches is not likely to remain permanent. A few people switching does not call for the obituary of the Democratic Party.

This switch is frequently not the smartest political move. For one thing, it is often unnecessary, and based on an overreaction to a one-time trend. 1994’s national Democratic meltdown became Alabama’s 1998 Democratic surge, on the coattails of Don Siegelman, and Wallace and Bennett were barely able to scrape by with their wins. But in what is even more important to the unprincipled opportunist, it’s frequently not availing as a career-saving move.

Richard Shelby pulled it off, but he did so from a hard-to-copy position. He was already sitting on a mountain of cash after his 1992 re-election, and had four years to pile on more before facing the Quixotic opposition of Clayton Suddith, who mortgaged his pickup to pay his qualifying fee. Sullivan likewise enjoyed a long post-betrayal career, but PSC presidents have an historic tradition of seriously out-fundraising their opponents.

More typical is the experience of Sheriff Glasgow. Running in the Republican Primary in 1990, he was soundly beaten by his former chief deputy. And you don’t have to have the political memory of a Publius to remember what happened to the former Congressman Griffith in the 2010 Republican Primary. He was trounced so badly that he failed, for unspecified speculative reasons that can only bring a chuckle here, to even make it to the podium on primary night to make a concession speech.

So what are we to do about this phenomenon? There is no shortage of Democrats who say “good riddance,” and who wish that even more moderate or conservative officeholders would defect. Many of those are the same people who claim to be happy when imperfect Democrats like Congressman Bobby Bright go down to defeat in general elections. I understand and appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t necessarily share it. It’s still embarrassing to have officeholders defect. It gives the GOP media something to whoop about, and you have to spend a lot of time and money going after them in the next election. And however annoyingly conservative these switchers were, those in legislatures did formerly vote to organize their legislative bodies as Democrats. Our caucus in the U.S. House may be more pure and holy than it was in 2009, but it’s also in the minority. (As I have made clear elsewhere, I blame a White House that utterly failed at selling its anemic health care, economic, and financial reform policies, for failing to give these Blue Dogs necessary political cover.)

It’s incumbent on the Party leadership at every level, both in the Party proper, and among the caucus leadership in legislative bodies, to help remind the entire office-holding Party of the likely futility of switching. This is not something you want to do with a high degree of visibility, and even a private, but overt “conversation” might be over the top. But the occasional joke at a banquet about “One-Term Griffith” will not only bring a laugh, it will serve as a reminder. Post-switch retaliation, such as letters to the editor (and the occasional lawsuit!) demanding refunds of contributions are less effective, though a few switchers have been shamed into refunding Democratic contributions.
What may be more fun, and more effective in the long run, is to dig around on your hard drives (or, if you are Old School, your boxes of photo prints) for photographs of your favorite former Democrat, before his switch, smiling alongside some group that is bound to be anathema to his new Republican friends. I show here, a modest example.

For those who must rant to the editor, and I certainly see the therapeutic benefit, I leave you with one suggestion. There is a party-switcher about whom we should brag on such occasions, however futile his inflexible conservatism reveals an S.E.C. diploma to be. Former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas was elected to the U.S. House as a Democrat in 1978, and re-elected in 1980 and 1982. Shortly after his 1982 re-election, he chose to switch. However, he didn’t just change the animal decorating his House office. He resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives, stating that the voters of his district had voted him back in a few weeks earlier as a Democrat, and they deserved the opportunity to vote him out if they disapproved of his switch - without having to wait two years. A rare moment of GOP integrity. Of course, those who do write the editor should recount Gramm’s example, and call on the latest Benedict Arnold to emulate it.

1 comment:

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