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Artur Davis and Other Democratic Party Apostates: A Brief Taxonomy

For the third consecutive time, Republicans are planning to feature an aggrieved Democrat (or ex-Democrat) at their national Convention to personalize claims that the latest Democratic presidential nominee has abandoned the true legacy of his party and left moderate-to-conservative donkeys no option but to vote for the GOP.

As it happens, I know the most recent trio of apostates pretty well. 2004’s Zell Miller, who was enlisted to savage John Kerry’s national security credentials, was my boss in Georgia back in the early 1990s. And I worked with Joe Lieberman (2008’s cross-endorser) and Artur Davis (the latest model) when both men were active in the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council, where I was policy director for a good while. So what if anything do they have in common? Is there a template for party-switchers?

If there is, it might well be a combination of these three men’s qualities. Miller is the full convert, who changed his positions on a host of issues to reflect conservative ideology even before endorsing George W. Bush (and subsequently, a long line of other Republican candidates in Georgia and elsewhere). Miller is also, as anyone who knows him will agree, one of the least neutral people in American politics, a true Appalachian character in the mold of Andrew Johnson who is capable of rolling around in an eye-gouging fight in one ditch and then the other with equal passion. 

Lieberman, like his predecessor the neocon “Reagan Democrat” Jeane Kilpatrick (the star of the 1984 Republican Convention) is someone who strayed far outside the boundaries of his party on one set of issues—national security. After being denied renomination to the Senate as a Democrat in 2006, he had few qualms about endorsing his old friend and comrade-in-arms John McCain, even though McCain had by 2008 been forced to renounce most of the domestic policy projects on which he and Lieberman had worked together. In effect, Lieberman was endorsing the man who was briefly discussed as a cross-party running-mate for John Kerry—and getting revenge on his many Democratic enemies.

Davis is a different matter. A very early supporter and personal friend of Barack Obama, and once (despite a pro-business and socially conservative record that discomfited some national Democrats) a passionate advocate of universal health coverage and stronger federal support for public education, Davis set his sites on the audacious goal of becoming governor of Alabama (as he told me years earlier, just after giving an inspiring speech on how conservatives were starving the public schools and the economic opportunities of his very poor majority-black district). Having done so, he systematically began adjusting his ideology to the views of his state’s conservative general electorate, to the point of becoming a national spokesman against the Affordable Care Act and a voice of open contempt towards Alabama’s embattled pro-Democratic interest groups, presumably believing his race and the radicalism of Alabama’s GOP would maintain his base of support.

His extreme “triangulation” didn’t work, and he was absolutely trounced in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary by an underfunded white candidate who swept Davis’ own majority-black congressional district. Practically from the moment of his concession speech, he left his party and his state behind, and soon surfaced as a columnist for National Review and then a transplanted Virginian expressing interest in a future congressional race as a Republican. The one-time champion of better-funded public education recently emerged as a vocal defender of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s radical Christian-Right-based school voucher program in Louisiana.

Davis has none of Miller’s fire, and little of Lieberman’s desire to maintain an independent position outside both parties. His current posture has all the trappings of a professional “reboot,” and his invitation to go to Tampa and shiv his old friend the President of the United States must look to him like a heaven-sent opportunity to become a national celebrity and leapfrog the many prospective congressional candidates in his new digs who never had a “D” next to their names on any ballot.

I say this not to accuse Artur Davis of insincerity. He took on a nearly impossible task in running for governor in the most pro-Republican year in the state’s history, and he did have the decency to get out of Alabama before switching parties, lest he give aid and comfort to the neo-confederates who dominate the GOP in the Heart of Dixie. But his claim that it’s Obama, not himself, who changed since 2008 is disingenuous, and he will obviously be used by his new friends to provide cover for the Romney/Ryan ticket’s heavily race-inflected attacks on the president on the entirely phony grounds that he’s gutting welfare work requirements and “raiding” Medicare to redistribute tax dollars to poor and minority people—you know, Artur Davis’ former constituents.

It’s interesting that Democrats don’t seem to feel the same need to recruit a high-profile apostate from the GOP ranks every four years. But whether it’s giving Zell Miller a chance to vent his perpetually swollen spleen, or offering Joe Lieberman the consolation prize of a convention speech after party conservative vetoed him as a running-mate for McCain, or giving Artur Davis a new political lease on life after he fell between two stools in Alabama—Republicans always keep the door open to anyone who can reinforce their deeply discredited reputation as a “centrist” party that’s a reasonable choice for disgruntled Democrats. If Bill Clinton were willing to play the role assigned to him in Romney attack ads as the champion of a “New Democrat” tradition Obama has abandoned, they’d give the Big Dog a Convention role as well. But that obviously ain’t happening, so they’ll take what they can get.