Every four years a great algae plume of stories appears inside the beltway Sargasso sea about “conservatives” who’ve decided either that the Republican party is no longer for them (“I didn’t leave the party, the party left me”) and/or that the Democratic nominee isn’t your typical Democrat to such a degree that intellectually “serious” Republicans must cross the aisle for the sake of the country.
One could argue that Peter Viereck, famously if oddly described as “the first conservative,” started the trend with his insistence that all real conservatives should support Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower. Viereck was a really interesting writer and deserves to be better remembered more than he is, but his political acumen was dull-edged and his commitment to Buckleyite conservatism was weak.
I’d argue that the last significant defection with any real intellectual credibility was in 1992 when a few ex-Democrat neoconservatives (including my old boss Ben Wattenberg) backed Bill Clinton, after extensive lobbying by Clinton, on the grounds that they believed he would be a foreign-policy hawk of the Scoop Jackson variety (I thought they were nuts at the time). They were wrong, of course (As Joshua Muravchik detailed at great length the year after Clinton was elected.) But they get a pass from me for the most part because they were still nominal Democrats who’d simply found common cause with Ronald Reagan. They wanted to go home again and they let themselves be seduced.
Since then, the caliber of defectors have proved to be less and less impressive. That’s not to say that some weren’t sincere, but generally speaking their public arguments for switching to the other side were not very persuasive and often at odds with their real motivations. Douglas Kmiec is probably the most notorious example of an “ObamaCon,” at least among pro-lifers (he famously defended Obama’s vote in support of partial birth abortion, a hard case to make for someone calling himself a Catholic pro-lifer). Obama rewarded him with an ambassadorship to Malta, inspiring any of us to quip that it profits a man nothing to trade his soul for the whole world, but for Malta . . . ?
Anyway, it will be interesting to see if Hillary Clinton can inspire similar conversions this time around. It will be a particularly difficult argument to make for the simple reason that she’s been around for so long. It’s one thing when an unknown figure bursts on the scene. A newcomer can pretend to be all things to all people in a way that a veteran of the political scene cannot. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems obvious to me that if you claim to be a conservative and then suddenly discover that Hillary Clinton is really one too, then you were either never a conservative in the first place or you care about something other than your principles a whole lot more.
Still, I’m sure there are some HillaryCons waiting in the wings. Get ready to see them interviewed on MSNBC in the months ahead.