Commentary: Party-switching politicians aren't new

Sen. Arlen Specter has become a Democrat.
Sen. Arlen Specter has become a Democrat. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

Who says we're not trendsetters out here in flyover country?

The nation's capital is in a tizzy this week over U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's unceremonious dumping of the Republican Party.

"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right," said the senator from Pennsylvania. "I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

Nothing we haven't heard around these parts.

Paul Morrison articulated a variation of that theme when he became a Democrat and easily got himself elected Kansas attorney general in 2006. (Things didn't work out so well after that, but not because of the party switch.)

That same year, former Kansas Republican Chairman Mark Parkinson turned Democratic to run as Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' running mate. His memorable quote, spoken as Kansas was embroiled in one of its periodic uproars about the theory of evolution: "I decided I'd rather spend time building great universities than wondering if Charles Darwin was right."

Across the state line, Chris Koster saw that his support of embryonic stem cell research while in the Missouri Senate would doom him in a statewide Republican primary. He switched and won election as Missouri's attorney general.

Party switching, with its elements of opportunism and betrayal, is the stuff of high political drama. It's also good for democracy.

It is a wake-up call for parties that impose litmus tests or pay undue homage to factions in their midst. It's an affirmation that the majority of voters who vote in general elections live close to the political center, and they want their officeholders to dwell in the same neighborhood.

Of the three switches I mentioned above, Koster's situation is most like the Specter spectacle.

Morrison, the former Johnson County district attorney, switched parties solely to knock Republican Phill Kline out of the Kansas attorney general's office. Parkinson, it now appears, was more interested in public service than advancing himself in politics.

Despite their age difference of nearly 40 years, Koster and Specter are alike in their determination to further their political careers. And both used to be Republicans who got on the wrong side of a powerful faction of that party.

Specter is the prime target of the anti-tax, pro-business group Club for Growth. The club demands obedience from GOP candidates, and Specter hasn't complied. Most recently, he was one of three Republican Senators who supported President Obama's stimulus package. Plus, the group's former president, Pat Toomey, lives in Pennsylvania and wants to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Koster's falling out was with Missouri Right to Life, the anti-abortion group whose endorsement, in recent years, was deemed essential to winning a Republican primary in Missouri.

But merely opposing abortion isn't enough. Candidates must also be against embryonic stem cell research. And they must oppose economic development measures, such as university building proposals, if there is the remotest possibility that embryonic stem cell research might one day take place in that building.

The defections of Specter and Koster are indications that the groups have overplayed their hands, just as big labor did when it sought iron-fisted control over the Democratic party. Americans don't like bullies; it's as simple as that.

The interest groups are servants to their causes; they can't see the line to know when they've crossed it.

Party leaders serve at the behest of the interest groups, so they acknowledge the line at their peril.

Politicians see the line, though. And sooner or later they back away from it and move toward the center, which is where most Americans have been all along.


Barbara Shelly is a member of the Kansas City Start's editorial board. She can be reached by e-mail at bshelly@kcstar.com. She blogs at voices.kansascity.com.

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