On Wednesday, Democrats in the North Carolina House chose Rep. Thomas Wright of New Hanover to be their nominee for speaker pro tem. Reportedly Republicans will also nominate a candidate, likely a woman, and the two will share the post in much the same fashion that Rep. Jim Black and Rep. Richard Morgan are sharing the speakership.
Frankly, I didn’t care much about this. With two speakers, there is no need for a pro tem. Moreover, the job was already a mostly ceremonial even before the Bizarro Session of the legislature began.
What I found interesting was that, according to this AP dispatch, former Republican Rep. Michael Decker actually got the most votes for the job in the first two votes taken in the secret Democratic caucus meeting. It took three more votes to choose Wright. Although it is true that Decker didn’t prevail, his early support obviously lends credence to the orthodox Republicans’ original spin on Decker’s party switch, that he did it with at least a tacit understanding that Democrats would give him a solid shot at the pro tem job, a shot that his fellow Republicans wouldn’t give him last year.
Decker, for his part, used the opportunity to bash his former colleagues. “The Republican Party has a nasty, nasty attitude,” he said. “They would have embraced with open arms any Democrat that changed to Republican, but they vilify one who went the opposite way.”
I’ve heard this argument around the capital city with increasing frequency in the past two weeks. It has something to commend it. After all, Republicans have spent the better part of 30 years welcoming former Democrats into the party with open arms, occasionally within months or years of the politicians being elected as Democrats to a federal, state, or local office. Down in Georgia, for example, party switches to the Republican right after the GOP’s victorious elections in November helped give the new Republican governor a friendlier state senate with which to do business.
So are Republicans hypocrites in the Decker case? Not necessarily. The GOP never said that an individual in a free society had no right to leave the party. Nor have the Republicans I’ve seen in the public eye said that it was inherently suspect or unethical for a Republican officeholder to become a Democrat. Certainly, some have said that such a switch, if accomplished within only weeks of being elected as a Republican in a strongly Republican district, should have been accompanied by a resignation or a special election.
There’s a more important point, however. The ethical question regarding Decker isn’t the fact that he switched parties, but the issue of motivation. In most cases, Democrats during the past generation who have become Republicans have done so saying that their conservative philosophy no longer fit the party they grew up in, that the GOP offered a more appropriate home for their political ideas and aspirations. You might think this mistaken, but it is a principled decision. Similarly, as I have argued before, Sen Jim Jeffords of Vermont erred in changing parties so soon after being elected by voters as a Republican, but at least he was leaving a party that he perceived as too conservative for his taste.
Decker claims that he had no ideological conversion, no second-thoughts about his longtime conservative record and philosophy. Thus his explanation for switching parties was properly subject to doubt and suspicion because it offered no credible, principled rationale. That’s why his former Republican colleagues and friends were so angry with him, so “nasty.” I dare say that if one of the more moderate to liberal Republican members had become a Democrat – Rep. Wilma Sherrill of Buncombe, for example – the statewide political furor would have been much subdued (though surely many in her district would still have felt betrayed, as Decker’s constituents did).
It is wrong, simply wrong, to switch parties so soon after an election for what appeared to be mercenary or monetary goals (even if, in the end, the goals were not achieved). Perhaps some Republicans have been hypocritical in the Decker case, but they need not have been.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.