(The Root) — It didn't exactly come as a shock last week when Artur Davis announced his switch to the Republican Party. Although the former U.S. congressman from Alabama served as a top surrogate to Barack Obama in 2008 and was once widely anticipated to become a Democratic power player, he frequently walked out of step with fellow Democrats in the House. He was the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote against the Affordable Care Act, for example, as well as the 2007 Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
By the time Davis left his seat in Congress in 2010 to run for governor of Alabama — a bid in which he suffered a crushing Democratic-primary defeat — he'd stepped up his criticism of the Obama administration. However, it wasn't until last month that he finally made the decision to switch parties. "At the end of the day, being in the Republican Party feels like a more comfortable ideological home for me," Davis told The Root in an interview. In Part 1 of that exchange, he also explained his political evolution and why, despite sharp ideological differences with Democrats, it was hard to say goodbye.
The Root: I understand that this was a decision you made cumulatively over time, not based on one policy issue. But was there a breaking point, or moment of clarity, that motivated your switch to the Republican Party?
Artur Davis: Over the last two years — not being in elective office, and not being a candidate for elective office — I've had a chance to be a spectator. When you're a spectator, you can listen to what the sides are saying and weigh the arguments.
I concluded over that two-year period that the things Democrats were saying don't match what I think and what I feel. The things that Republicans were saying come closer to matching what I think and feel. It doesn't mean that either party is a perfect fit. It doesn't mean that there aren't some positions I hold that would be compatible with either party.
TR: You wrote that the Democratic Party has changed, that "this is not Bill Clinton's Democratic Party." What do you mean?
AD: When I got involved in politics in the late 1990s, Bill Clinton was the president of the United States, and the Democratic Party was open to all kinds of points of view. There were robust, interesting debates in the party about the future of Social Security, welfare reform, crime policy, health care policy, tax and budgetary policy. On almost every issue, there were legitimate pools of thought operating within the party, and you could align yourself with any one of those pools of thought.
Fourteen years later, I don't see a lot of diversity of opinion in the leadership of the Democratic Party. Now, rank-and-file Democratic voters [on the other hand] are all over the place. I know that 25 percent of Democrats still identify themselves as conservatives; 40 percent call themselves moderates. But when it comes to the ranks of elected officials, people who have influence and a voice in the Democratic Party, in my mind the party has moved decisively and strongly to the left.
TR: What are some examples of this Democratic hard-lining that you see?
AD: Imagine if a Democratic candidate, senator or congressman were to say this week, "The Supreme Court is going to issue a ruling soon on the Affordable Care Act, and I sure hope the court overturns it." Can you imagine what the reaction would be? And this is, mind you, two years after 36 Democrats voted against the Affordable Care Act in the House. I can't imagine a Democrat saying that.
Take same-sex marriage. Can you imagine if a prominent Democratic elected official were to say this week, "I think the 1st Circuit got it wrong on the Defense of Marriage Act, and I think the president's got it wrong on same-sex marriage"? I don't mean Sanford Bishop in Georgia, or an African-American politician perhaps in the South. I mean if a major Democratic figure were to say that, that person would be denounced instantly.
Look at what happened to Cory Booker on Bain Capital. Mind you, that wasn't a philosophical disagreement; that was a tactical statement that the Obama campaign was unwise to attack Mitt Romney's history running Bain Capital. Cory Booker was savaged, particularly in the blogosphere, for just tactically questioning an element of the campaign.
Last fall when Occupy Wall Street was in vogue, there were a few major Democrats who said, "Well, they need to get their act together and develop a sense of priority." But I don't remember a single major Democratic elected official who said that their focus on inequality is an overstatement, is an exaggeration, is wrong, and that the dominant focus of the administration ought to be finding ways to strengthen the entrepreneurial class.
I could go on. But on the issues that I gave you, if a Democrat were to be on the "wrong" side of those issues, that person would be run out of the party, and certainly his opinion would not be given equal weight in the debate. That's the lack of diversity that exists.
TR: Today's Republican elected officials also seem to walk in rigid lockstep, primarily concerned with saying no to everything short of their ideological perspective. Isn't there a similar lack of diversity on the other side of the aisle?
AD: There's no question the Republican Party has moved to the right. There's no question there's an element of the Republican Party that is purely concerned with saying no, and an element that isn't interested in new ideas.
I don't think that's the whole of the Republican Party, though. What I have seen is a group of Republicans who are thinking about how to use government responsibly and effectively. They recognize that you can't just gut government and throw it in the water somewhere, but it has to be used in an effective way.
I've seen a significant debate within the Republican Party about what the future of entitlements ought to look like. I see Republican governors like Gov. [Bobby] Jindal of Louisiana and Gov. [Chris] Christie in New Jersey wading into education policy, trying to figure out how to challenge the unions to make schools and teachers more accountable. I hear Sen. [Marco] Rubio talking about a compromise for the DREAM Act, something that I voted for several years ago, and talking in an intelligent, constructive way about immigration policy.
I see a debate between the libertarian wing of the party, if you will, and the more traditional wing about social issues. I see an emerging center that says that federalism is going to be the answer on these questions, that ultimately states and communities are going to chart their own destiny, and that perhaps we're too quick to look to Washington, D.C., and the federal Constitution for answers on a lot of the social issues that we face.
Those are very interesting debates to me, and I see those happening within the Republican Party. I associate myself with the center right of those debates, the side that believes in being thoughtful and constructive. There is no center right in the Democratic Party. There is in the Republican Party, and it fits, in many ways, how I see the world.
TR: Despite your assessment of the parties, you said that leaving the Democratic Party was a hard decision for you. Why?
AD: It was hard because, obviously, when you're part of a political party, you build up a record of positions on issues. I knew full well that if I were to switch parties, the first thing that would happen is that people in the Democratic Party would recycle every comment I've ever made that criticized Republicans or praised Democrats, or every time I've taken a position that's at odds with the Republican Party. I knew there would be a group of people who would aggressively argue that it was simply motivated by politics.
I knew that the largest elements of the mainstream media would be much less inclined to take seriously my actions than if the opposite had occurred — say, a Republican leaving the Republican Party and endorsing Barack Obama. I knew there would be a significant amount of opposition. I tried to weigh the question: If I identified myself as a Republican, would it somehow diminish my voice? Would it somehow limit my capacity to have a voice because of the ferocity of the pushback?
I decided, first of all, that you don't let people who don't like you dictate what you do. And secondly, I thought there was a value in my bringing my point of view to the table. We have a two-league sport: Democrats and Republicans; there is no Independent Party. So I concluded that the best way for me to have a voice would be to associate myself with the Republican Party.
Check The Root tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview with Artur Davis, in which he discusses his disappointment with President Obama's failure to "change race" in the country, what he believes will draw younger African Americans to the Republican Party over the next decade and what's next on his political horizon.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.