The Washington Times

AN INSTANCE IS NOT A TENDENCY, let alone a trend, let alone the opening of a floodgate. But the case of the switch of Rep. Michael Forbes of New York from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party bears keeping an eye on. GOPAC, the political committee that came to fame under the tutelage of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has kept careful track of party switchers nationwide, not only at the national level but state and local officeholders as well. In the past six years, more than 400 officials have switched from Democrat to Republican, including two U.S. senators and a handful of representatives. There were few more than a handful of switches in the other direction, none particularly high profile.

Now comes Mr. Forbes. Although the news coverage of his switch would probably have been greater had it not been for the disappearance the same weekend of John Kennedy Jr.’s plane, a change of party affiliation by a sitting congressman is a fairly noteworthy occurrence—a coup for the party switched to and an embarrassment for the party switched from. In his announcement, Mr. Forbes, who was first elected to represent New York’s First District on Long Island in the GOP landslide of 1994, railed against the extremism of the current Republican Party in Congress. He praised Democrats’ willingness to welcome into their ranks members of a variety of political views—an understandable nod given his own past votes in favor of pro-life legislation, gun rights, and the impeachment of President Clinton. Minority Leader Dick Gephardt volunteered that Mr. Forbes’ accession was proof that Democrats are the party of tolerance and inclusion.

His erstwhile colleagues in the GOP have said many things of Mr. Forbes, none of them good, many of them sour grapes in nature. But grant validity to some of the less bitter comments: that he has a volatile personality and a desire for attention that is pronounced even by the standards of members of Congress. That’s not enough to explain why he did what he did.

The last round of switching, after all, was a response by some Democrats to the GOP takeover of Congress in November 1994. A few (mainly Southern) Democrats became Republicans, thus avoiding a stint in the House minority, a singularly powerless position to be in in a body controlled so absolutely by the majority. Mr. Forbes, by contrast, left the majority to join the minority. He also enjoyed the political plum of a seat on the House Appropriations Committee majority, a horn of plenty for the folks back in the district. He did not gain power by this switch.

Moreover, surely he is aware of the skepticism that will meet his conversion among true-blue Democrats in the caucus in general and in his district in particular. Three times now, the Democratic powers of the First District of New York have mobilized their resources to try to beat Mr. Forbes. With how much enthusiasm will they now embrace him as their candidate?

It seems unlikely that Mr. Forbes intended this switch to be the equivalent of political suicide—nor that he much relishes powerlessness. At bottom, right or wrong, must lie two convictions: that the Republican moment in national politics has passed, meaning that Democrats will regain the majority; and that he can survive politically one way or the other.

On the first point, he’s guessing like everyone else. As to the latter, it seems unlikely that too many ordinary voters of Suffolk County will harbor a grudge against him for switching. In the first place, as a Republican, he has been popular, winning 64 percent of the vote in 1998. His is a fairly Republican district, true, but people there aren’t exactly strangers to voting for Democrats. Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole 53-37 in Suffolk County, and Mr. Forbes outpolled Mr. Clinton, winning 55-45. Mr. Forbes clearly figures he has his finger on the district’s pulse. And it is, after all, a tough order of business to defeat an incumbent. Elections usually turn on open seats. It would probably take a huge GOP tide to swamp Mr. Forbes. He will also surely have an ample war chest. Promises to potential switchers of support, high-profile fundraisers (say, Bill Clinton in East Hampton), etc., are par for the course. And of course Mr. Gephardt would have promised him that the organized party will do everything possible to forestall a Democratic primary challenge.

Such a challenge is probably the biggest threat Mr. Forbes faces. Consider the fate of Greg Laughlin of Texas, one of the post-1994 switchers to the GOP. Official Republican sentiment, as well as gobs of GOP money, opposed the primary challenges to Mr. Laughlin mounted by Ron Paul and another contender. Mr. Laughlin won the first round, but not by the absolute majority required to avoid a runoff. In it, Mr. Paul beat him 54-46, then went on to win the general election narrowly, 51-48.

On the other hand, Texas’ Fourteenth District is among the nation’s most conservative—as indeed it would have to be to elect a hard-core libertarian, Mr. Paul.  New York’s First District is hardly comparably liberal or Democratic. But only Democrats vote in New York’s Democratic primary, so Mr. Forbes will have to make a convincing case to them. He will get no crossover help in a primary from Republicans who wish to continue supporting him.

Chances are pretty good Mr. Forbes is going to move quickly to try to build support among Democratic primary voters. That means a move to the left. If he pulls it off, Republicans may be denouncing him as a turncoat into the next congress and beyond.

And though it seems unlikely that any Republicans will soon emulate him and switch, it is likely that at least a few others are keeping an eye on him to see if he survives—that is, to see if they have options they should be keeping open.