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Ron Nehring

For Crist, Fletcher and Chafee, Timing Reveals Party Switching as an Act of Desperation

One of the challenges to people who have spent too much time in politics is they develop an inflated sense of their ability to spin themselves out of anything.

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, former California Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, and now Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee all appear to suffer from this condition.

Faced with imminent defeat at the ballot box, each of these three men switched from the Republican Party to independent, and then switched again to join the party of Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and Barack Obama.  Each time, the move was promoted as one rooted in a grand concept of “principle,” suggesting it was compelled by a personal moral drive to realign their affiliations better with their “principles” and philosophy.

This is the kind of nonsense that comes from politicians with a bloated sense of their own political skills.

These men did not switch party affiliation for lofty philosophical reasons.  They did so out of desperation.  While they can spin justifications for their switch all day long, they’re betrayed by the one element they can’t spin, and that is their timing.

Charlie Crist, the former Florida Governor who in 2009 made the mistake of giving President Barack Obama a big hug during the President’s campaign for his stimulus bill, was well on his way to defeat in the Florida Senate primary when he bailed on the GOP in time for him to run for the seat as an independent.  Crist went on to lose to Marco Rubio.

Nathan Fletcher’s decision to recast himself as an independent sick of political parties came just after he failed to block the local GOP’s endorsement of a Republican rival, and found himself on the path to a third place finish in the San Diego mayor’s race.  Almost a year after losing the election, he switched again to become a Democrat.  Yet another act of “principle.”

This brings us to liberal Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.  In 2006, then a Republican, Chafee lost his U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.  He was elected Governor as an independent in 2010.  But Chafee’s political skills aren’t as grand as his ambitions, and he finds himself in trouble as he faces re-election in 2014.  So, viola, another move of “principle” comes as Chafee suddenly becomes a Democrat.

Chafee’s move received a less than enthusiastic response from Democrats.  The Democratic Governors’ Association issued a one sentence complete with a non-endorsement: “We are excited to welcome Governor Chafee to the ranks of Democratic governors and look forward to enthusiastically supporting whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee in Rhode Island.”  In other words, the Democrats already had two candidates in the field for Governor, and don’t need a third.  They had run against, and defeated, Chafee before and were looking forward to doing so again.

Party switchers like Crist, Fletcher and Chafee have been around long enough to know the typical reporter is on the center-left, and pre-disposed to latch onto the fed narrative that the GOP has become “too conservative” for them, making their switch away from the GOP inevitable, an act of courage, and not really their fault.

But they can’t spin their own timing, which in every case reveals these men not as principled leaders, but politicians who find themselves in trouble and hope a shift will help save their cherished career.

For voters, there is a downside.  We elect leaders based on a certain predictability as to how they will govern.  We look to their actions as well as their rhetoric to indicate how they will use the power of government if they win the election.  A leader who is genuinely committed to putting a set of ideas into action can be trusted to do so, and voters can make a judgment based on that understanding.  A candidate who will say, and do, anything just to be elected?  These are people whose ambitions exceed all other considerations.