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8 of the Most Memorable Political Party Switches

Party hopping takes on an entirely new meaning when politicians get involved. See some of our favorite switches just in time for the next round of elections. 

In a recent interview with Deborah Solomon of the New York Times, author and journalist Christopher Hitchens explained his about-face from being a self-described socialist with a column in the Nation to what some consider a neoconservative polemicist. Hitchens is only one of many public figures, including politicians, who have altered their beliefs about governance over the years. How should we feel about our national leaders when they suddenly decide to hop across the aisle? Is this a mark of inconsistency, or one of openness to opposing viewpoints? One thing is certain: when politicians change their minds, it makes it much harder for voters to make up theirs.

1. Ronald Reagan: From FDR to GOP
According to LIFE magazine, Ronald Reagan started out as a liberal Democrat, an avid devotee of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. But after his public speeches began to reflect a more conservative, pro-business stance and endorsements of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon for president, Reagan officially switched his allegiance to the Republican Party in 1962, declaring, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party. The party left me.” The man who had once admired FDR’s social-welfare policies now feared what he perceived as nascent socialism in the United States, with Democrats leading the way.

2. Strom Thurmond: States’ Rights First, Party Second
Like Reagan, Strom Thurmond felt that he needed to adjust with America’s changing party structure. Thurmond ran for president of the United States in 1948 as the segregationist States Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrat) candidate. Even though he won only 2.4 percent of the popular vote, Thurmond wouldn’t yield any of his beliefs. He remained a strong supporter of states’ rights and segregation throughout his political career, changing parties from Dixiecrat to Democrat to Republican, according to which represented the best fit for his own ideas.

3. Howard Dean: Affluent Yalie Casts Off Silver Spoon
Howard Dean, who was born in East Hampton, New York, to a stockbroker and an art appraiser, grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. But after getting to know his college roommate, the son of a sheet-metal worker, Dean began to expand his political views, from conservative Republican to liberal Democrat. In fact, some Democrats see Dean as too liberal and criticized him fiercely in his most recent position, as chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, which he held from 2005 to 2009.

4. Arlen Specter: Can’t Leave the Dems Alone
Arlen Specter made waves in 2009 when he switched parties, once more becoming a Democrat. (When he first ran for Pennsylvania district attorney in 1965, according to LIFE, Specter was a registered Democrat running on the Republican ticket.) Specter lost the primary to representative Joe Sestak in May 2010, but he shook up Republicans and Democrats alike by announcing that he was increasingly “at odds with the (current) Republican philosophy.” Pundits and voters watched Specter closely, holding him up as the leader of a growing skepticism regarding the neoconservative movement within the GOP.

5. Joe Lieberman: Independent Thinker
Is Joe Lieberman open-minded or an opportunist? Despite running as Al Gore’s vice-presidential candidate during the presidential election of 2000, Lieberman left the Democratic Party after losing the primary for reelection to his Connecticut Senate seat. Unwilling to accept defeat at any price, Lieberman ran again as an Independent and won. Now, though he describes himself as an “Independent Democrat,” Lieberman is usually hobnobbing with Republican John McCain, whom he endorsed for president in 2008.

6. Condoleezza Rice: Won’t Take No for an Answer
Condoleezza Rice served as Republican president George W. Bush’s national security advisor and then as secretary of state during his two terms in office. But LIFE reports that Rice was a Democrat until 1982, when, infuriated by a Democrat who denied her father voting registration, she switched her allegiances to the GOP. Well, not all of her allegiances: Rice still served as foreign policy advisor to Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator from Colorado, in 1984.

7. Pat Buchanan: The American Conservative
Right-leaning Pat Buchanan served as a senior advisor to Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, but he’s not the lifelong GOP member he appears to be. Buchanan left the party in 1999 to run for president himself, as a candidate representing the Reform Party, which Ross Perot founded in 1996. This wasn’t such a dramatic switch, though, since the Reform Party holds mostly conservative positions on key issues like fiscal responsibility, campaign finance reform, and immigration.

8. Hillary Rodham Clinton: Goldwater Girl Goes Left
In her autobiography, Living History, Hillary Rodham Clinton writes about her past as president of the Wellesley Young Republicans. Clinton worked for the unsuccessful 1960 Nixon and 1964 Goldwater presidential campaigns as a teenager, no doubt influenced by her parents’ traditional Methodist beliefs. But like Dean’s, Clinton’s political ideas grew while she was in college. She opposed the Vietnam War and finally left the GOP because of Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign of 1968, which she and many other liberals saw as veiled racism.

Changing One’s Mind Isn’t Illegal
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Some of these party-switching politicians, like Dean, Rice, and Clinton, seem to stand as exemplars of this idea, while others (Lieberman, for example) appear more opportunistic than open-minded. But all of these figures remind us of our obligation as American voters: to keep a broad perspective and to vote for the position, not the party.

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