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Crossing the Aisle

December 28th, 2009, 04:12 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Arguably the biggest political story of holiday week, outside of the Senate passage of health care reform, was the decision by freshman Democratic Congressman Parker Griffith to jump to the Republican Party.

There are several reasons why a candidate would cross the aisle, as has been evidenced by the recent history of party switches, both in the Congress and at the state level.

The problem for Griffith is that there are several characteristics of his decision to jump sides that don’t fit well with past precedents, and there are unique dynamics to this particular election cycle that might make his decision an ultimately unsuccessful one.

Let’s go through some of the reasons for party switches, weigh them against the facts of the Griffith defection, and see how this nouveau Republican stacks up.

1. IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM, JOIN ‘EM

This particular maxim of party switches has two very distinct components.

The first component is the simple act of moving from the minority party to the majority party. Over the years, a number of Congressmen have made party switches in order to join the newly ascendant majority party. Many of the “Class of 1994″ party switches were predicated on this motivation.

Griffith, of course, is swimming against the tide here. His move is from the majority party to the minority party. Of the sixteen Congressional party switches of the last two decades, only four of them (25%) have gone from the party in power into the minority.

Griffith is the fourth member of Congress to do so–and it is worth noting that the previous three were all out of the Congress within one term of their party switch. Interestingly, all three lost in different ways: Tommy Robinson of Arkansas lost when he tried to move up to Governor, Bill Grant of Florida lost in his first re-election bid in his new party, and Michael Forbes of New York failed to survive his first primary election as a Democrat.

There is a second way “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” fits as a maxim: if your congressional district is no longer hospitable to your party identification, then necessity might dictate that you follow the flow. It is telling, of course, that of the sixteen party switches in the last two decades, full three-quarters of them were Southern Democrats who elected to continue their political careers as Republicans.

Here, in a normal political environment, the Griffith defection might make sense. After all, his district, the Alabama 5th, is ancestrally Democratic, but steadily growing Republican at the federal level. John McCain easily carried the district in 2008 (61-36), and it has literally been decades since a Democrat carried the 5th. Therefore, it is plausible that Griffith saw that he barely beat Wayne Parker in 2008 (which, although not necessarily in Alabama, was a year with a big Democratic tailwind nationwide), and that he could not see a political future as a Democrat in such hostile territory.

If that is the case, Griffith should have realized that this is not a normal political environment. Within hours of his announcement, the two Republicans already exploring 2010 candidacies confirmed that they were staying in, and were less than charitable in their assessment of the newest Republican in the Alabama 5th. Even more unsparing was GOP gubernatorial frontrunner and state treasurer Kay Ivey, who lampooned the party switch as “solely a ploy to cling to his seat in 2010″ and argued further that “political expediency is an insult to every grassroots activist who commits untold hours in devotion to getting candidates elected.”

The Republican/teabagger schism could not come at a worse time for Griffith, as any party switch is going to be met, not with a path of rose petals and a coronation, but an immediate denunciation of the apostate for insufficient conservatism. If oddsmakers laid odds on such things, one would have to imagine that the most likely outcome of Parker Griffith’s political career may well be “defeated in Republican primary.” It is a somewhat painful (for Democrats) irony that the only thing that may allow Griffith to stay alive in the GOP primary is the vast war chest he accumulated while still a Democrat.

2. “I DIDN’T LEAVE THE PARTY, THE PARTY LEFT ME”

Invariably, this is the reason often cited for party switches. It, of course, was the reason that Parker Griffith gave on Tuesday when he said that he would “no longer align myself with a party that continues to pursue legislation that is bad for our country.”

This is the most oft-cited rationale for crossing the aisle, if only because it gives the veneer of being the most intellectually honest reason for doing so. It is rarely, however, the reason why party switches occur.

And in the case of Parker Griffith, it is almost certainly not the reason for his decision to join the Republican Party.

Griffith is not a long-serving legislator who, over the course of decades, watched his national party slide out beneath his feet. To put it simply, Parker Griffith is no Ralph Hall, the octagenarian who finally switched to the Republican Party in 2004 after voting largely in concert with the national Republican Party for years.

Griffith was elected, of course, just last year. While one could argue that the national Democratic Party has changed since Ralph Hall’s election in 1980, it is a little tougher to make the case that the national Democratic Party has changed a lot since last November.

It becomes even tougher, of course, when a little digging reveals that you were advocating health care for all as recently as 2006, and that you were dropping four-figure political contributions to Howard Dean back during the 2004 presidential campaign cycle….

3. PURE, SWEET SPITE

This is less common, but it has been a motivator for party switches in the past. The most relevant one, it can be argued, is Arlen Specter. Opinions will, of course, vary, but I think an argument can be made that Specter’s defection in the Spring of 2009 was one part self-preservation (Pat Toomey was going to clean his clock in the GOP primary) and one part spite (he was tired of being primaried).

The most obvious example of spite as a motivator was the curious case of a rather forgettable California Congressman named Matthew “Marty” Martinez. By the spring of 2000, Martinez, a Democrat, had served nine terms in the U.S. House. A moderate Democrat in a liberal district, he was thumped in the Democratic primary in 2000 by then-state legislator (and current Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis, who defeated the longtime incumbent by a 62-29 margin. Martinez decided not to exit the stage quietly, announcing a switch to the Republican Party, and drastically changing his voting habits. He even briefly sought a way to get on the ballot as the Republican nominee (the GOP ballot line was vacant), before finally leaving the stage.

Is Griffith being motivated by spite? There is a plausible theory there, one raised by the Plum Line’s Greg Sargent:

It appears [from the Politico report on Griffith's switch] one reason he switched is that he was upset that the President took away his missile defense pork:

“The Obama administration’s decision to scrap plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe further frustrated Griffith, according to GOP sources, because his district contains the base for Boeing’s ground-based missile defense research.”

No question, Griffith had plenty of other reasons to switch — he voted with Republicans most of the time, and even said he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. But it’s pretty amusing that a hissy fit over pork was part of the rationale.

In the final analysis, there were probably a number of factors which led Parker Griffith to cross the aisle: an uphill district, a tantrum over getting his share of the federal largesse, trying to put his finger to the wind over 2010 politics.

The bottom line, however, is given the current political environment, it is hard to see a clear path to success for the newest member of the GOP. He is going to have to survive what will be a deeply contentious Republican primary, and then he is likely to face legitimate Democratic opposition. This will not be an easy move for Congressman Griffith, and if the past is prologue, it is a move that may ultimately prove unsuccessful.


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