Charlie Crist Democrats and Artur Davis Republicans

I am not generally a big fan of pols switching parties and then being paraded around by their new friends as trophies and/or as “proof” the forsaken party has left its traditions or values. But then I’m touchy about it because I once worked for Zell Miller in Georgia (before he showed any signs of apostasy), and more generally, used to associate back in the day with a fair number of southern Democrats who bolted for the GOP the moment it served their electoral interests. As regular readers know, I am particularly aggrieved by the switch recently consummated by Artur Davis, whose appearance in Tampa probably boosted his congressional aspirations in his new party and his new state of Virginia.

So I wasn’t a big fan of the decision to put Florida’s Charlie Crist on display in Charlotte.

But on the other hand, party-switching is sometimes both rational (not opportunistic), and even principled. Sometimes parties do “leave people behind,” when there are significant ideological shifts. This was most evident during the Great Sorting Out that began with the Civil Rights Act and reached its peak in the 1990s, when the two parties became genuine ideological coalitions of the Left and Right instead of tribal assemblages based on ancient regional, religious, or Big Event (e.g., the Civil War) loyalties. A lot of the pundit hand-wringing in recent years over the Great Lost Traditions of Bipartisanship is actually nostalgia for a time when neither party stood for that much nationally, and the most significant divisions involved shifting bipartisan coalitions disguising solid ideological coalitions, not some sort of comity or “compromise.”

Beyond the Great Sorting Out, there are intraparty trends that “leave people behind” as well, with the most notable being the long march to domination of the Republican Party by a self-conscious conservative movement–which insisted not only on rejecting people whose ideological character logically placed them in the opposing camp, but on purifying the GOP from those who exhibited insufficient discipline, militancy, and commitment to the movement’s ultimate goals. There have been specific issues on which Democrats have conducted implicit if not explicit “purges”–most obviously, it’s increasingly difficult for Democrats opposing legalized abortion or expansion of LGBT rights to feel at home in the Donkey Party–but nothing like the constant emphasis in the GOP on proving that one is not only “conservative,” but a “true conservative,” an exercise that has become so common in contested Republican primaries that it approaches self-parody.

I’d say the time for Democrats to honorably leave their party on grounds that it’s “left them” has pretty much passed, which is why the complaints of an Artur Davis sound so insincere. Charlie Crist is a much different case. Yes, he left the GOP after he was on the brink of being trounced in a primary (Davis waited until a few minutes after his primary loss). But as he noted in his speech in Charlotte, the first big breach involved his support for Obama’s stimulus package–no more of an ideological heresy, to put it mildly, that Mitt’s Romney’s (and many other Republicans’) longstanding support for a health reform model very similar to Obamacare. The second and defining act that got him tossed out of the Republican Party was his veto of legislation radically remaking public education in Florida–again, not representative of Florida Republicans, but hardly a leap into aggressive liberalism. He certainly did not parade his hostility to interest groups in his party the way Davis did, and so far as I know, has not yet indicated an intention to pursue office as a Democrat.

Personally, I’ve always thought the acid test of whether a party-switching “trophy” is worth listening to is whether he or she actually represents a significant body of voters. Republicans have tried to claim Artur Davis is among the last of the Blue Dogs who have been run out of the Democratic Party by an increasingly intolerant liberal wing. In fact, most Blue Dog casualties in the last couple of cycles have not been “purged” but have simply lost elections to Republicans who treated them with the same contempt as other Democrats. And it’s impossible to look at Davis’ actual congressional district in Alabama and conclude that the direction in which he was rapidly heading when defeated in the 2010 gubernatorial primary was representative of the people who had elevated him to office.

I’d guess Crist is more typical of a larger group of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents whose comfort-level with the GOP has waxed and waned over the years, but mostly waned. Many of them may have beaten Crist to the exits, but some–such as the not-inconsiderable number who do not identify with the Teavangelical strain of movement conservatism, or to put it another way, the kind of people who want to serve on a school board to support, not destroy, “government schools”–are still around. It probably makes sense to give them a distinct voice within the Democratic Party. I’d say it has more of a future than that of Artur Davis Republicans.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.