Alabama Congressman Parker Griffith's announcement yesterday that he was defecting from the Democrats and joining the Republicans has left political pundits and partisan professionals alike pondering the impact this will have on the 2010 election. With some justification, non-political actors in the nation's Tea Party movement will also see in this some vindication for the pressure that they have been applying to politicians over the last year. But it's very easy to draw the wrong lessons from the Griffith story. What it really demonstrates is something much more important than who controls Congress and your health care.
To understand this, consider what Griffith's old political friends were saying about him yesterday:
Alabama Democrats defended Griffith against GOP claims that he was soft on terrorism during the 2008 election, and the head of the state party said he is disappointed by Griffith's defection now. "Democrats of every stripe and philosophy sweated and bled for this man," said Joe Turnham, chairman of the state party. "He narrowly became a congressman through the hard work, votes and financial contributions of thousands of Democrats. Today, they feel betrayed."
Turnham said Griffith should return money to Democratic donors -- something the congressman said he would be happy to do.
And yet later, we learn that during just his first year in office...
...Griffith had accumulated one of the most conservative voting records of any House Democrat. He was one of seven Democrats to oppose Obama's economic stimulus measure early this year and also voted against an anti-global warming bill pushed strongly by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
But throughout his entire (albeit brief) career in Congress, there were no front page stories about Turnham denouncing Griffith for repeatedly selling out President Obama and Speaker Pelosi. None of that was going to happen for his heretical ideas. No, the accusations of treason fly only after he changes his group of political friends.
If you are a voter who sent money to Griffith because you support what is generally understood to be the Democrat side on the aforementioned issues, then you were betrayed many months ago by your party, not by Griffith this week. And you're being betrayed again while Mr. Turnham spins you.
If you continue to wait for a political party to care about your issues, rather than about its power, then you betray only yourself next time.
And you could have spared yourself the pain if you had understood one of the most important lessons in what we call our Tea Party Toolkit:
2. Tea Party activists don't presume virtue in party labels
Political parties are extensions of the politicians that they elect. They are mere instruments to gain power, not virtuous machines that exercise that power in noble ways...
... An experienced patriot treats the promises of politicians and political parties with equal (and substantial) skepticism. Use political parties only as tools toward your ends, not theirs. Your loyalty is too valuable to sell so cheaply.
The lesson of Parker Griffith isn't that he recently "joined the right side" regarding health care, global warming, stimulus spending and much else. Indeed, that is exactly the wrong lesson - designed to make slavish devotees of one party feel bad, the other party feel good, and not much else. Party-switching in either direction is hardly a new development, after all. Parker Griffith isn't helping the policy agenda of Tea Partiers any more or any less than he was last week or last month when he hung out on the other side of the Congressional playground.
The correct lesson to draw from this is that neither political party provides a "right side" or even a "wrong side" on any issue. They will provide you only their side, and if you count on them for defending your principles then you will be betrayed whether their candidates switch labels or not.
It would be a shame if only the left-of-center voters in Alabama learned this lesson. Nobody is more vulnerable to such betrayals than misguided Tea Partisans who place their faith in a particular political party. Some of them here in Michigan have been putting this lesson into practice and are being vindicated for doing so:
Wendy Day of Common Sense in Government has reported on Facebook that Allen was the recipient of a $2,000 campaign contribution from the SEIU on June 22, six weeks before SB 731 was introduced. In another post she hints that introducing and passing the bill was part of a quid-pro-quo between Senate Republicans and the SEIU for union support of former state Rep. Mike Nofs in a November 2009 special election, which state Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser had characterized as among the party's top priorities. Day observes that the SEIU endorsed Nofs on August 22, two weeks after SB 731 was introduced, and sent four full-time workers to help on his campaign.