Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Party Switchers

First there was Arlen Specter, now there’s Parker Griffith. Both were sitting congressmen facing primary challenges in their own party who defected to the other side in the expectation that their new party’s leadership would clear a path to their new party’s nomination in the next election. Both are looking for new jobs.  That’s another example of a phenomenon I described before, of the parties getting more ideologically homogeneous but less centralized.

Contemplating Griffith's defeat in yesterday’s Alabama Republican primary, Jonathan Bernstein draws an interesting comparison between Specter and Griffith’s party defections and Phil Gramm’s defection from the Democrats to the Republicans in the 1980s:

“Despite caucusing with the Democrats, Gramm was a key supporter of Ronald Reagan's early, and successful, agenda -- in fact, the Reagan spending-slashing budget was the Gramm-Latta budget. Moreover, Majority Leader Jim Wright had supported a seat for Gramm on the Budget Committee, and believed that Gramm had broken his word about eventually supporting the committee's product -- and had gone beyond that by meeting secretly with Reagan OMB directer David Stockman to plot strategy, using the Democrats' plans against them. As a result, Gramm was kicked off the Budget Committee when the Democrats met after the 1982 elections. . . .

“Gramm's response was dramatic: he resigned from Congress, switched parties, and ran as a Republican in the special election caused by his resignation. And, unlike Arlen Specter and (apparently) Parker Griffith, he won, and he never lost an election in Texas. . . .

“It could be that Griffith was just a fluke winner, and was destined to lose no matter what he did. I don't know...I think his best bet would have been to try to win re-election as a Dem, and his second-best option would have been the Gramm route, a resignation and a special election. Granted, it's easy to say that now. What I am sure about is that I'd like to see the next party-switcher give Gramm'ing it a try. Although after the last few weeks, I suspect that party switchers are going to be a bit more scarce than they once were.” 
Gramm and Specter/Griffith may all be party-switchers, but they exemplify two very different models of political entrepreneurship. Gramm was a direct marketer, selling his ideological coherence to an electorate that was beginning to segregate itself ideologically. In that respect, at least, he was a precursor of a Joe Sestak or a Rand Paul, not of the candidates they were running against.

“Gramm’ing it” was out of the question for a Specter or a Griffith because ideological purity was never part of their political brand. They were trying to secure a political future for themselves by being backroom politicians, offering their votes on key issues to the other party’s leadership in exchange for a secure political perch. Their mistake was thinking that the leadership of their new party could find them one.

I suspect that both "Gramm’ing it” and "party-switching" are tactics for a bygone era, when politicians still had an excuse for being ideologically out of step with their party.

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