Opinion

Reihan Salam

Artur Davis and the crucial role of party switchers

By Reihan Salam
August 29, 2012

TAMPA, Florida – If you’ve been watching the Republican National Convention at home, you probably missed the speech former Representative Artur Davis of Alabama gave on Tuesday night. Sandwiched between Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling who won an impressive come-from-behind victory in Texas’s GOP Senate primary, and Nikki Haley, the strikingly youthful Indian-American governor of South Carolina, Davis was overshadowed in most of the media coverage. MSNBC decided not to air Davis’s speech at all, which was a noteworthy omission given that Davis had cut his political teeth as a Democrat and indeed as an enthusiastic early backer of President Obama.

But on a star-studded night, before hotly anticipated speeches by Ann Romney and conservative action hero Chris Christie, it was Davis who gave the most effective performance. It was so effective, in fact, that I heard many of the assembled participants speculate about which office he’d run for next.

Party switchers are a staple at these quadrennial affairs. They dramatize the case against the opposition by offering dispatches from within the belly of the beast and signal that it’s safe for voters to forswear their old allegiances. And so they serve the double function of rallying the base and wooing the center.

Perhaps the most notable party switcher in recent memory was Zell Miller, the then-U.S. senator and former governor of Georgia, who gave a spellbindingly zealous speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Having once been the centrist Democrat par excellence, practically inventing Bill Clinton’s Third Way playbook, Miller let loose a torrent of rage at Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry that delighted rock-ribbed conservatives everywhere — and may well have frightened small children.

Miller’s fiery address foreshadowed the results of the 2004 election. White southerners, many of whom had retained some vestigial loyalty to the Democratic party of their forefathers, flocked to George W. Bush and the GOP, which helped the party make significant gains in the U.S. Senate. This consolidation of the South has had a deep and profound impact on our politics, in part by sparking an equal and opposite reaction that has driven much of coastal urban America into the arms of the Democrats.

Which is why Democrats have had their own bumper crop of party switchers. This year they’ve pulled off a coup by including Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican former Florida governor once known as “Chain Gang Charlie” for his draconian law-and-order enthusiasms, on their roster of speakers for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. It’s almost as though the Democrats took a look at Artur Davis and said, we’ll see you your congressman and raise you a governor.

Among the cynical journos whose tweets I had the distinct displeasure of reading that night, there was a derisive, sneering tone toward Davis, with many observing that the former Alabama congressman, an African American raised by a single mother, was unlikely to sway black voters.

What the critics failed to understand is that Davis’s address, unlike Zell Miller’s, was not about making an ethnic or regional appeal. Rather, he served as a stand-in for a kind of upwardly mobile, aspirational voter you’ll find in many American communities. Davis was raised in humble circumstances in West Montgomery, Alabama. But he also attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School, where he proved an academic success. He later returned to Alabama to serve as a prosecutor. In those years, he embraced the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, and in particular the pragmatic centrism of Bill Clinton. Unlike most elite-educated professionals of his vintage, he didn’t embrace a hard-edged social liberalism. He tried to find ways to reconcile left and right and white and black, and he saw Clinton’s message of hope, growth and opportunity as the right way to do it.

Now, however, having served as a Democrat in Congress under President Obama, and having lost a bruising, ideologically charged Democratic gubernatorial primary in his home state, Davis has changed teams. Not surprisingly, his erstwhile allies have been notably unkind. Once feted as the new face of black Democratic politics and as the “Alabama Obama,” various fair-weather friends have condemned him as an opportunist.

The simple truth is that as the Obama years wore on, Davis found himself agreeing more and more with right-of-center figures like Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Their tough-minded, whatever-works pragmatism resonated with his experiences, while the Obama administration’s highly ideological approach did not. Davis anticipates, in his words, “the rise of a reform-oriented center-right that is bent on restoring accountability and market principles to public systems” over the next decade.

The really interesting question about Davis’s political future is whether the GOP will become the party of Daniels and Christie and Jeb Bush or, as its critics allege, something narrower, angrier and more ideological. Davis has made it clear that he believes conservatives should seek to reform and improve government as well as contain its growth. This is a conviction widely shared among real-world Republicans. Yet apart from the aforementioned governors, all of whom have their idiosyncrasies, it has few convincing champions in the Republican political class, least of all in Congress.

If Mitt Romney is elected president, he will have a brief window of opportunity to seize this ground and to make the GOP the party of reform, aspiration and inclusiveness. If he pulls that off, Artur Davis will be the harbinger of a much bigger, more consequential shift.

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