A memo to Parker Griffith, the Alabama congressman, whose staff has abandoned him and who angered both parties after announcing his decision to leave the Democrats and join the Republicans: there are good ways to exit one party for another. Yours just wasn’t one of them.
While some Republicans say they don’t want the guy on their team, and Democrats huff about “finger-to-the-wind politicians,” party switching is as American as apple pie (although much more popular elsewhere). Abraham Lincoln did it, abandoning his Whig roots in a widespread move toward the nascent Republican Party. Ulysses S. Grant changed teams. Teddy Roosevelt, too—ditching the Republicans, after failing to receive the party’s presidential nomination—deciding instead to launch the Progressive Party and run against his onetime friend and former secretary of war William Howard Taft in 1912 (the two split the Republican vote, allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win). Wendell Wilkie is a member of the club, as is Ronald Reagan.
Party switching requires great timing and a tightrope walker’s balance. A step at the wrong time or in the wrong place can invite disaster. What’s the best way to leave a party? A few basic ground rules:
1. Don’t Go It Alone Party switchers need company. It’s much easier to leave the party if you have friends in tow. Southern politicians heaved right together during the clash over civil rights legislation in the 1960s typified by Strom Thurmond’s switchover. A generation later, in 1994, a wave of Democrats in the Senate (Ben Nighthorse Campbell) and the House of Representatives converted to the GOP. The 104th Congress saw more switching than any other since World War II. Sure, somebody’s got to be the first guy over board. You just don’t want to be him. “You’ve got to be part of the zeitgeist,” says political historian Richard Norton Smith. “You’ve got to be part of a preexisting movement.”
2. Don’t Leave Too Early Griffith took $1.2 million from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to finance his run in 2008. Less than a year later, he announced his decision to quit. That’s more than $3,000 a day for being a Democrat. Not bad work if you can get it—but it’s bound to breed resentment if you aren’t sufficiently gracious. The most successful party-switchers have been the politicians who could convincingly point to the ways in which, over time, candidate and party have parted ways. Such conversions usually take place over the course of a career, not a mere twelve months. Political scientists and historians point to Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Phil Gramm, both elected to the House as Democrats before becoming Republicans in the Senate, as exemplary cross-over kings. In Gramm’s case, it helped that he was viewed as a man of ideas; Campbell had honed a reputation as a quirky, iconoclastic official. Griffith had neither advantage.
3. Don’t Leave Too Late Call this the Arlen Specter rule. The later a conversion comes in a career, the tougher it can be for constituents—and new party comrades—to swallow. “It’s hard to make the case that you can spend a lifetime in one philosophical camp and suddenly decide you really belong to the other,” says Smith. Specter weathered 44 years as a Republican only to switch parties just as a legitimate conservative challenger appeared to run for his seat. Further muddying the waters: it was Specter’s second fence-jump; he began his political career as a Democrat, back when it was a good time to be one, as Philadelphia’s district attorney in the 1960s. Maybe he should have heeded the similarly ideologically slippery Winston Churchill, who once famously said: “Anyone can rat, it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”
4. You Don’t Have to Actually Cross the River Some pols who grow disenchanted with their party decide against going all the way. Case in point: On Tuesday, Lincoln Chafee, among the last Rockefeller Republicans on the planet, followed this path by announcing his decision to run as an independent in the Rhode Island gubernatorial campaign. "I believe that running as an independent will free me from the constraints that party politics impose on candidates," Chafee said (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/lincoln-chafee-plots-comeback-independent-rhode-island/story?id=9473238). Former Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont followed a similar way a few years back, exiting the GOP to claim independent status. In 1940, Sen. James E. Watson, Republican of Indiana, describes the dangers of headlong conversion when he rebuked the erstwhile Democrat Wendell Wilkie for seeking the Republican nomination for president that year. Said Watson to his fellow Indianan, “You know that back home in Indiana we think it's all right for the town whore to join the church, but we don't let her lead the choir on the first night.''
5. Beware the Perils of Going Halfway Party switchers need to work like hell to get their new allies to believe their faith is real. “There is penalty for switching parties. It creates issues relating to trust,” says Timothy Nokken, a professor at Texas Tech who has studied the phenomenon. In Alabama, Griffith has got a lot of trust-building ahead of him. One conservative activist told the political editor at Human Events Tuesday that, “[Griffith’s] party switch appears disingenuous to folks I’ve talked to and, quite honestly, people just don’t like the guy.” Arlen Specter again provides lesson in how not to do things. He told NBC’s David Gregory days after his switch, “I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat. I did not say that.” For good measure he repeated the point once more time, “I did not say I am a loyal Democrat.” Why switch, then?
Before making the change, prospective party-switchers should think through how they’ll navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of party politics: jump too avidly, and you’ll lose votes for looking like an opportunist. Fail to jump avidly enough, and you risk being forever marooned in limbo, as a pol without a true home in either party. Just ask Joe Lieberman.
As Republicans ramp up for the 2010 midterms, there may be further attempts by party leaders to woo Blue Dog Democrats across the aisle. Disenchantment with President Obama and the liberal-led Democratic Congress have created opportunities. But the wooing comes with a price tag. The leadership may have to dangle choice committee assignments to complete the steal, and engage in other kinds of horse-trading. “These guys want something out of the deal too,” Nokken says. “Sometimes it becomes very costly in trying to woo party members to your side.”
And what sort of reward can the most skillful of party switchers hope for? The electoral history is not a pretty picture. Since World War II, roughly 20 members of Congress have traded sides. “The few switchers that have made the jump have been punished electorally,” says Carol Mershon, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Best of luck, Parker Griffith. Just remember: you asked for this.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified William Howard Taft as Theodore Roosevelt's vice president. He was his secretary of war from 1904 to 1908.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.