The Near Meaninglessness of Party Membership

Rick Perry’s having been a Democrat years ago has become a point mentioned by some of his Republican critics. As the Christian Science Monitor points out, that archetypal hero of Republican conservatism—Ronald Reagan—was himself a Democrat before moving to the GOP in the early 1960s.

Reagan is a great example of the meaninglessness of party membership. He was a New Deal Democrat early on, and his politics hardly changed. As governor, for better or for worse, Reagan signed the most liberal abortion legalization bill in the country, banned the free carrying of firearms, approved the largest tax increase in California history, and greatly expanded the bureaucracy. As president, he approved massive deficit spending, signed off on trade restrictions, cut and run from Lebanon after the Marine barracks were bombed, and granted amnesty to illegal immigrants. All of this could have come from a Democrat and the only difference would be the many Americans who to this day choose to love him and those who choose to hate him.

Republican Richard Nixon favored a ban on handguns, created the Environmental Protection Agency, and instituted wage and price controls. Democrat Jimmy Carter pushed through deregulation and was a tough Cold Warrior whose questionable support of Afghan rebels helped weaken the Soviet Union (along with helping to foster an anti-American terrorist threat). Republican George H.W. Bush raised taxes and signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Democrat Clinton signed welfare reform and oversaw a significant increase in marijuana arrests. Republican George W. Bush dramatically expanded Medicare and the Department of Education. Democrat Barack Obama has widened the wars abroad, as well as the revolving door between Wall Street and the White House.

Whatever you think of these actions—I find most to be bad—they are all outside of what is supposedly expected given the party label of the president being described. The same is true up and down the political system and in most states in the country. Whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat will indeed indicate something about their policies, and much more likely, will serve as a strong indicator of what kind of rhetoric they use.

John McCain and Barack Obama were both for civil unions but against gay marriage. They had the same position, yet most gay rights advocates saw the former as an opponent and the latter as an ally. They also both had very similar positions on the war on terrorism, detention policy, surveillance, immigration, TARP, Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Education, the war on drugs, trade, gun control, and 90 to 95% of what remains of federal policy. But their rhetoric was meant to do what it always is meant to do in politics: Excite the base (whether on the left or right) while also appealing to the center. So they spoke differently even as they advanced an agenda with 90% or so overlap in the all the fundamentals.

Have Rick Perry’s views changed since he became a Republican? Would he govern so differently if he were a Democrat? I’m guessing not really. But we can bet that the people who vote for him will think so a good deal, based largely on what comes out of his mouth and the letter—whether “R” or “D”—affixed to his name.

Anthony Gregory is a former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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