“In governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of the party,” George Washington once said. “But in those of popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged … a fire not to be quenched; it demands uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.”
George Washington was certainly not the only early American leader to distrust political parties, however. John Adams greatly feared the “division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” Nonetheless, the Democratic and Republican parties are undoubtedly at the centerpiece of the American experiment. And as old as the political parties is the phenomenon of party switching, where a person in one party renounces his membership — often joining his former adversaries on the other side of the aisle.
According to former Rep. Buddy Darden, a conservative Georgia Democrat, “The decision to switch parties is a highly risky one. [Legislators] value stability, and changing party affiliation in the middle of a congressional career can have profound effects for the member. … [T]he act of switching parties involves more than simply changing a label. In short, switching parties is not a decision to be taken lightly.”
In order to further examine the phenomenon of party switching in America, The Politic sat down with and former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis — who became a Republican in 2012 — and former Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey — who became a Democrat in 2007.
Interview with Artur Davis
Artur Genestre Davis represented Alabama’s 7th Congressional District in Congress from 2003 to 2011 as a Democrat. A native of Montgomery, Ala., Davis graduated from Harvard College and Law School before working as a civil rights lawyer and assistant U.S. attorney. Despite serving as one of the national co-chairs for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, Davis changed his affiliation to the Republican Party in 2012 and spoke at the 2012 Republican National Convention in support of Mitt Romney.
In 2010, Davis ran as a Democrat to become Alabama’s first African-American governor, but lost in the primary by a large margin. Now a resident of Virginia, Davis has reportedly weighed future bids for Congress as a Republican. In 2012, Davis became a visiting fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics and began writing a column for the National Review.
The Politic: Why did you register as a Democrat in the first place?
When I entered politics as a Democrat in the late ’90s, the Democratic Party was a much broader tent politically, both nationally and within my home state of Alabama. In addition, the ranks of black Republicans in a state like Alabama were extremely marginal: All of my associations and influences would have been Democrats, and I would have had every reason to think that the Democratic Party would continue to be a party with a broad, ideologically diverse wingspan.
The Politic: I read that you were the congressman from the most heavily Democratic-leaning district to vote against President Obama’s health care bill. What was the reaction to that like from your colleagues in the House?
I did not spend time focusing on the reaction of my colleagues in the Democratic caucus, who had a patronizing habit of believing that any vote “out of character” for a black member of Congress from a safe district was insincere. I believed then and now that the Affordable Care Act was too bureaucratic and too cumbersome an approach to a very specific problem: the gaps in Medicaid that existed for individuals who had no dependents and the challenges smaller business have in affording coverage for their employees. I fear that comprehensive reform will not only complicate the delivery of health care but likely trigger a spike in premiums as the insurance market adjusts to the government’s mandates. Lastly, I believe that the approach of mandating businesses to provide coverage will constrain the growth of a job market that has been tepid for four years.
The Politic: In your opinion, how has the Democratic Party changed in recent years?
I think that the Democratic Party has resolved its traditional ideological tensions in favor of a decidedly liberal approach — one that prioritizes large-scale bureaucracies as the solution to economic gaps in our society; that puts its head in the sand regarding the unsustainability of our entitlements; that is too status quo oriented on education policy and much too dependent on approval from the teachers’ unions. I have also seen liberalism develop an intolerance and a condescension toward cultural conservatism that only deepens the polarization in our politics.
The Politic: Why did you switch your registration to the Republican Party in 2012?
There is no actual party registration in any state I have lived in. But I chose to declare as a Republican and to campaign for Republicans for two reasons: first, on the topics of debate in the last several years, I found my views lining up with Republicans rather than Democrats. It would have made no sense to remain in a party where my viewpoints are so decidedly out of the party’s mainstream. Second, I recognize that the reform wing of the GOP, which wants to modernize and streamline government, and make conservatism more relevant to the working class and struggling middle class, is growing but needs allies. I wanted to join that conservative reform effort because it speaks so well to the challenges that I see in the next decade.
The Politic: Since you switched parties, how have you been received by Republicans? How have Democrats reacted to the switch?
I have been very enthusiastically received by Republicans in every section of the country. I have appeared in every sector of my adopted state of Virginia campaigning for Republicans, and visited 10 states on behalf of either conservative reform efforts or the party’s candidates. Among Democrats and their allies in the media, there has been a conscious effort to minimize or ignore the work I have done, which I recognize as a deliberate and predictable strategy.
The Politic: Do you think the American people would be better served if there were a strong third party in national politics?
I have concluded that a third party is not viable and not even necessarily desirable. Too many of the third-party efforts in this country have been driven more by elites than grassroots populism and reflect not so much an authentic political center as an Wall Street/K Street-blessed sensibility that wants to move Republicans to the left on social issues and Democrats to the right on economic issues but lacks a deep commitment to fundamental political or economic reform. I was struck at how little a group like Americans Elect had to say about education, or alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, or cap and trade, or overregulation or even small business development.
The Politic: Why do you believe you lost your 2012 gubernatorial run in the Democratic primary?
I lost the 2010 Democratic primary for an old-fashioned set of reasons: My opponents defined me, and my campaign was incapable of defining my virtues as a candidate. The race became consumed by two questions: whether a black could win in Alabama, and whether I was overlooking black voters to win white support. In that context, it was impossible to win a Democratic primary.
The Politic: Had you won the primary that year, do you believe you would have ultimately been elected governor?
Given the toxic unpopularity of Obama in Alabama, and the headwinds against Democratic candidates in Alabama that year (the party lost two congressional seats, both houses of the Legislature, and every single statewide office) it turned that it would have been impossible for any Democrat to win the governorship of Alabama that year. Of course, this is hindsight and did not at all reflect the state of polling when I entered the race. I am very confident that had I won the nomination, I would have had a stronger appeal to suburban independents than did the eventual Democratic nominee, and that I would have been a better fit for the general election dynamic. In 2010, that appeal would not have ended up resulting in better than a high single-digit defeat.
The Politic: Do you plan on running for elected office in the future?
Not a week passes without some request that I run for office in Virginia. I will consider running when I have developed a capacity to raise the funds and create an organization in a political district that is winnable for a Republican.
Interview with Pete McCloskey
Paul “Pete” McCloskey Jr. represented California in Congress from 1967 to 1983 as a Republican. A native of Loma Linda, Calif,, McCloskey worked as an attorney until he was elected to fill a vacancy in the U.S. House of Representatives. Notwithstanding numerous awards for his service in the Korean War, McCloskey became the most prominent pacifist in the Republican caucus. He co-authored the 1973 Endangered Species Act, co-chaired of the first Earth Day, and was the first congressman to publicly call for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment. McCloskey also unsuccessfully ran against President Nixon for the Republican nomination for president in 1972 on an anti-war platform.
Following a failed Senate bid in 1982, McCloskey co-founded the Council for the National Interest, wrote four books, and once again began practicing law in California. He ran for another term in Congress as a Republican in 2006, before switching his affiliation to the Democratic Party in April 2007. Today, McCloskey is a principal at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy and prominent public speaker.
The Politic: Why did you register as a Republican in the first place?
I registered Republican in the late ’40s (I was born in 1927) because I believed in less rather than more government, balanced budgets, and the policies that had been followed by [former Republican Gov.] Earl Warren. My family had been Republicans in California since 1859, the year before Lincoln was elected.
The Politic: I read that you were the first member of Congress to publicly call for President Nixon’s impeachment. What was the reaction to that like from your colleagues in the House?
My colleagues thought I was crazy. Most of them refused to believe in Nixon’s guilt until he resigned, although four Republican members of the Judiciary Committee a year later had the courage to vote for impeachment on the ground of obstruction of justice — which I had argued on the floor he had admitted when he fired [Counsel to the President John] Ehrlichman and [Chief of Staff H. R.] Haldeman and ordered the FBI to stop investigating the CIA’s investigation. … John Ehrlichman had been my moot debate partner in the finals at Stanford Law School in 1950.
The Politic: In your opinion, how has the Republican Party changed in recent years?
The Republican Party has come under the leadership of Christian evangelists, most of whom don’t believe in evolution or global warming and are consumed with the desire to privatize whatever government programs they can. It has also turned its back on the U.N., World Court, and the Geneva Conventions against torture, as well as family planning, women’s rights, and now even birth control.
The Politic: Why did you switch your registration to the Democratic Party in 2007?
I changed in 2007, disgusted with what George W. [Bush] was doing, although his father and I were and remain good friends.
The Politic: Since you switched parties, how have you been received by Democrats? How have Republicans reacted to the switch?
The Democrats have accepted me with open arms; my old Republican friends think I’m crazy, although most of the good ones have also switched or are “decline to state.”
The Politic: Do you think the American people would be better served if there were a strong third party in national politics?
Third parties have generally been ineffective. It would help if young people would insist on one, however.
The Politic: Why did you run for Congress in 2006 after nearly two and half decades out of elected office?
At 79, mostly retired as a lawyer, I was enraged when a local congressman, Richard Pombo, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, took more money than anyone from the corrupt Jack Abramoff and tried to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Act, of which I had been a co-author in 1973-’74. He was a disgrace and although I got only 32 percent in the primary, it was enough to knock him out in the general. He was really one of the biggest assholes to get into politics in all history. Also, I had an incredible wife some 26 years my junior who may have been the only woman in America willing to move 90 miles to Lodi, Calif., for four months.
The Politic: Why do you believe you lost your 2006 congressional run in the Republican primary?
There was no way a Republican could beat an incumbent congressman in the primary, as bad as he was. Also, I was a carpetbagger.
The Politic: You left the Republican Party in 2007, citing the dominance of the ultra-conservative wing of the party. In the six years since then, do you think that phenomenon has been lessened or exacerbated?
I estimate that there is no way the Republican Party can return to the moderate rationality it enjoyed under Gerry Ford and George H.W. Bush. It grows worse, and unless they change to a reasonable position on Hispanic immigration and women’s rights, they will be lucky to retain the House in 2014.
The Politic: You surprised many with your congressional bid in 2006. Do you plan on running for elected office in the future?
There’s no way I will ever run for office again. At 85, I can barely remember where I left my car keys, and getting both legs into my underpants is a difficult daily chore.