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Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith becomes a Republican -- and a straw in the wind?

December 22, 2009 |  2:10 pm

President Obama signed a disaster declaration for the state of Alabama this afternoon. But that involved damage from last month's Tropical Storm Ida and had nothing to do with today's defection of a representative from his Democratic Party over to the Republicans.

Parker Griffith, a radiation oncologist in real life, was just elected to the House last year from northern Alabama's Fifth District after the retirement of another Democrat, nine-term incumbent Bud Cramer. Griffith won by only some 9,000 votes.

New Alabama Republican representative Parker Griffith

In one sense Griffith's immediate defection is no big deal. It's one seat less for the overwhelming Democratic majority (now 257-178) headed by Capt. Nancy Pelosi and only one seat more for the distinct minority headed by Ohio's John Boehner.

Griffith said he had become increasingly uncomfortable with the liberal policies of his party and president, especially the overwhelming spending.

"I believe our nation is at a crossroads," the 67-year-old Griffith said at an Alabama news conference. "And I can no longer align myself with a party that continues to pursue legislation that is bad for our country, hurts our economy and drives us further and further into debt,"

But on another level such a local decision could have wider significance.

For one thing, Griffith becomes the first House member of the party of Lincoln to represent that area since Reconstruction. It leaves Alabama with only two Democrats out of seven House members.

It is more unusual for a member of the ruling majority party to willingly join a helpless minority.

And does it indicate more simmering political trouble to come for Obama among so-called Blue Dog Democrats, four score moderates and conservatives whose constituents are nowhere near as liberal as the crowd currently running most everything in Washington?

And those constituents get their say in midterm elections next November, the president's first midterm election when history suggests the White House party loses seats in Congress.(Except for George W. Bush in 2002 and FDR in 1934.)

Several House moderates will be retiring next year. That along with a growing number of poll respondents identifying themselves as GOP members has given Republicans hopes of making considerable gains come November -- though perhaps not on the order of the "Republican Revolution" in 1994 in the middle of Bill Clinton's first term that saw control of both houses change hands because voters decided Clinton was acting more liberally than the centrist image he ran on in 1992.

Now add to the 2010 political mix an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan and stubborn double-digit unemployment, leaving Obama Democrats with the potentially disheartening campaign slogan: "Not as Bad As It Could Be."

Boehner, naturally, welcomed Griffith, and tried to broaden his decision to signify a national trend, saying, "Families continue to ask ‘where are the jobs?’ and all they are getting from out-of-touch Washington Democrats is more spending, more taxes, and more debt."

Michael Steele, Republican National Committee Chair, added: "Dr. Griffith's party switch sends a strong message to all Americans that there is no longer room in the Democrat Party for mainstream Americans."

Griffith's district, which relies heavily on defense contracts, did not believe in Obama's change to believe in last year, giving Republican presidential candidate John McCain 61% of its presidential vote.

Griffith was definitely among the more conservative representatives in his former party, having voted against the administration's $787 billion economic stimulus package last winter and a Pelosi bill to fight global warming. As well as opposing massive Obama-Pelosi healthcare bill.

Griffith said today he had not talked to other Democrats encouraging them too to pull a Specter and switch sides. And Griffith may face some suspicions about his true conservatism credentials among his new party's longtime members, as new Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter is learning as he confronts a veteran Democrat primary challenger in Pennsylvania.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Office of Rep. Griffith