Likely to be overshadowed by Rudy Giuliani's expected and welcome retirement from political life today is the announcement that a first-term Democratic congressman from Alabama is switching parties to become a Republican. Parker Griffith had been a state senator since 2006 before running in 2008 to replace a retiring Democratic incumbent who had held the seat since 1990. While this northern district, notable for having a Boeing plant, has been "red" for a long time, giving George W. Bush big margins both times out, the congressional seat has remained Democratic since the end of Reconstruction. Griffith was clearly a Democrat as a matter of convenience only, and inevitably became a Blue Dog with a particular hostility, as a physician, to Democratic health-care reform proposals. He was reportedly shaken by hecklers at town meetings earlier this year despite his own criticism of the reform plans. He was also irked that the government was going to be sending less money Boeing's way on various aerospace projects.
By progressive standards, as a Blue Dog Griffith was a DINO or "Democrat in name only," and for once this looks like a fair charge. The Democratic Party in northern Alabama is probably unrepresentative of the Democratic National Committee or Democratic voters as a whole. That forces the question of why Griffith or his predecessor needed to be Democrats, or why now Griffith's only option for political survival seems to be to turn Republican in defiance of already-announced challengers for his seat. Griffith's defection probably requires him to renounce no principles he ever held, and he will most likely vote in Congress exactly as he did before. From the vantage of the American Bipolarchy Griffith's switch may be a significant event, but for all practical purposes nothing has happened. Yet he may not get reelected and may not even be renominated simply because he's switched his label at an untimely moment. It will be hard to tell from my distance whether Griffith deserves his likely fate or whether he'll be a victim of partisanship on all sides. But to the extent that he's being held accountable for the policies of a party leadership he's apparently opposed consistently, his story demonstrates the absurdity of party politics in America today.