MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, a picture of military moms breastfeeding their children has gone viral and it's raising questions about what's appropriate for women in uniform. We'll speak with one of the women in the picture about why she did it and the reaction to it. That's in just a few minutes. But first, voters are casting ballots in several states today and many political observers will look to the results for clues about the battle for the White House.
But now there's been a head-turning switch by an early supporter of President Barack Obama. In 2008, when then-Senator Obama went to the Democratic National Convention to become the Democratic presidential nominee, this man took to the stage to endorse his nomination.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ARTUR DAVIS: I am honored to second the nomination of the man whose victory tonight takes us closer to becoming what we know America can be, ladies and gentlemen, a place where who you are now, a place where, where you come from, a place where all of the things that may hold you back pose no permanent barriers, where our destiny is what our god and our dreams determine it to be.
MARTIN: That was former Congressman Artur Davis from Alabama. That was then. Artur Davis left the Congress and ran for the governor of Alabama. He was hoping to become the first African-American to win a statewide office in his home state. He didn't. Now he's moved to Virginia and he hasn't just left his old job and his old home, he's also left his political party.
Artur Davis has switched parties. He says he is now a Republican and he's also renouncing his support for President Obama as well. And he's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us once again.
DAVIS: Thank you, Michel. Good to talk to you. Good to talk to your audience.
MARTIN: You know, I think we should just - it just goes without saying that party switchers are always the heroes to the people they're joining. They are the...
DAVIS: Sure, sure.
MARTIN: ...goats to the people they left behind. They are not - that's just the way it is. I did want to sort of ask you what the reaction has been so far. I note that you've been warmly embraced, of course, by the conservative media, who say, well, it's about time. And good on you.
DAVIS: Well, let me say a couple of things. I think that there's a way to do it and a way not to do it. I've seen people in the past win offices and a few weeks later switch parties. I don't think that's the way to do it. I've seen the opposite of that, people who've got qualifying deadlines coming up and decide, you know what? I don't think I'm going to win if I stay in this party so let me switch.
Arlen Specter, Parker Griffith a few years ago in Alabama. I'm out of office. I'm a private citizen. I've been a private citizen for two years. I've gotten to listen to what both sides are saying and I've gotten to hear the arguments and, you know, to make a long story short, I came to the position that on the issues that people are debating today and the issues that matter to me, that my views are closer to Republicans than Democrats.
Second quick point, this is not about renouncing my support of Barack Obama four years ago. That happened and you can't change the script on that. And I very much believe and still believe in the America that you heard me describe in that line from the very forgettable nominating speech four years ago.
But I no longer think that the Democratic Party is the best way to deliver that kind of America. What was it that I talked about? I talked about a country where there were no limitations based on your race. I talked about a country where aspiration was the driving force in America.
Unfortunately, I see the Democratic Party taking a step backward on both those fronts. I see more of an embrace of identity politics and group politics, which makes us more fractured than united, and candidly, I see the Republican Party talking more effectively about growth. Because growth is the key to mobility and aspiration.
MARTIN: I want to dig into that and I want to hear a little bit more about that, but before I do, I did want to ask you about an interview that you recently gave for Fox News with Neil Cavuto, where you talked less about the Democratic Party and more about the president. You said that I may be a minority in this regard, but I'm one of the people who supported Barack Obama because I thought that he was in the center.
I thought that he was someone who might be running to the left in the primaries to win the nomination. I got that. I believed him when he said he wanted to turn the page. I thought that he was going to be a pro-growth president. And so you go on to say - so is your primary disappointment with the president per se or is it with the Democratic Party in general?
DAVIS: Well, the president I think pretty articulately represents what the Democratic Party is today.
MARTIN: Well, I think a lot of people would disagree with that, as evidenced by the fact that there are a number of progressives in the Democratic Party who have expressed a lot of disappointment with him because they don't feel that he speaks enough about race. They think that he has not been aggressive enough about addressing issues affecting the poor, and they also believe that he has embraced a much more aggressive, militaristic foreign policy than they thought that he would.
This from a person who won the Nobel Peace Prize very early in his term. You see my point. So there are a lot of Democrats who just don't agree with you.
DAVIS: Well, there's no question that there's a far left in the Democratic Party just as there's a far right in the Republican Party, but one of the things that I'm trying to do is to make the point that there's a vibrant center right in this country, people who understand that government can't be thrown to the ground and can't be discarded.
But the way that we're doing things and the idea that exists on the left that more is always better, that being more aggressive in terms of engaging the private economic sector is always better, that perspective I think is not only wrong, I think it's being proven wrong the deeper we move into the economic doldrums we have.
What we're doing is not working because we've just finished a decade that was the least growth that we've had in the post-war era, with the possible exception of the slow growth 1970s. We finished a period where after passing the most comprehensive education reform that we've had in this country, No Child Left Behind, we've lost ground in educational performance in many areas.
So what we're doing is not working. I align myself with the center right. There is no center right in the Democratic Party; there is one in the Republican Party.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Artur Davis. He's a former Democratic congressman from Alabama. I say former because he says he's now left the Democratic Party and his state. He's now a Republican; he's living in Virginia. I want to address this question about where the center of gravity in American politics is and I want to read you a quote from a piece that appeared in the Washington Post.
It's part of a book by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. These are two respected political observers. Norman Ornstein is with the American Enterprise Institute, which is a conservative think tank - center right, if you will. Thomas Mann is with the Brookings Institution - center left, if you will. I'll just read you a quote.
It says: We've been studying Washington politics in Congress for more than 40 years and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings we've criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics; it's ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. And as I've said, these are two respected individuals, one of them with a conservative think tank, a venerable conservative think tank. And your response to that is?
DAVIS: Well, my response to it is they're both smart, thoughtful D.C. pundits, and what do smart, thoughtful D.C. pundits do? Echo the conventional wisdom five times a day and hope that they get it right at least once. I know that's the conventional wisdom. I know that everybody in this town of Washington, D.C. thinks that, oh, the Republicans have gone off the deep end.
The reality is both political parties have moved more toward their bases. Let's take one issue that's a subject of debate today - the Affordable Care Act. Imagine if a Democratic elected official stood up today and said I hope the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Act.
Any Democratic candidate in this country who stood up and said that would be attacked to no end, and if you doubt that, look at what happened to Cory Booker for having the temerity to deviate on a tactical question, which is whether the administration ought to be going after Bain Capital.
MARTIN: Wait. Just going back to the you part of this, I mean the argument has been made, how could you not know what the president's point of view was on this health care issue? It's what he campaigned on. This was not a secret. So the argument then becomes how could you then claim now to be disillusioned when this was a core issue in his campaign and you supported him from the beginning?
DAVIS: You don't leave a party because of any one thing. You do it because, over a period of time, you look at the issues and you decided, you know what, I feel more comfortable over here. Now, what I do think is interesting is there seem to be some Democrats and liberals whose opinion is, we don't want you in our party. We don't want you in the other party either, you know.
So I mean, I think what some people mean is we don't like you and we wish you were silent and you were buried somewhere politically.
MARTIN: Well, I think the question - I take your point on that, and there is that third option. I mean, like former Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont did choose to become an independent while he was serving in the Senate. Others have done so. I wondered if you had considered that option.
DAVIS: You know, I'm not a candidate for office, so I didn't have to think about the question of how you register, how you run for office as a candidate. But going back to you point about health care, again, that's not why I left the Democratic Party, but I cite that to answer your question. Your premise was that the Republican Party was the place that was intolerant. The Democratic Party was the big tent.
There is no diversity of opinion in the leadership of the Democratic Party on a wide range of issues in this country right now.
MARTIN: But you find there is more diversity in the Republican side? I mean, I take note of the fact that you're pro-choice, for example.
DAVIS: I think there is. I think there is...
MARTIN: And the Republican Party platform has not offered any concession to your perspective on this and - if you're still pro-choice.
DAVIS: Well, I'm someone who doesn't think that we need to send women and doctors to prison. What I see in the Republican Party are a lot of very smart pragmatic people who are thinking about how to pare down government in a way that makes it work more effectively, how to liberate markets and make them work more effectively. I don't see that intellectual diversity of opinion on the Democratic side.
MARTIN: What are you hoping to accomplish by switching parties and by talking about it?
DAVIS: You know, I don't have any agenda. I write a column and I write a blog and I write in what I hope is a constructive, civil way about the issues that we're debating in this country. I try to do it in a way that respects opinions on both sides.
MARTIN: Are you trying to run for office? There was a suggestion made that you are contemplating a run for the Congress in your new home state, Virginia. Is that true?
DAVIS: I've had a few people encourage me to get involved in politics, either running for Congress or legislature. I'm nowhere near making a decision to do that. This is still a new community for me. I've been here since December 2010. I know that Washington likes to put people in a box. And Washington is a town where there's a tendency to think, OK, if you're in this party, you've got to think this, if you're in this party, you've got to think this.
That's not what I bring to the discourse. There's no question. I pointed out in the essay I wrote last week kind of declaring my intentions to kind of join up with the Republicans. I wrote that I am not lockstep with the Republicans on immigration. I don't think that every tax break in the tax code is defensible. So given that there are places where I don't line up with what is seen as being the right of the Republican Party. But again, I'm not a candidate.
MARTIN: Artur Davis is a former member of Congress from Alabama as a Democrat. He has now switched parties. He is now a Republican. As he said, a private citizen living in Virginia, and he was nice enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Artur Davis, thank you so much for speaking with us.
DAVIS: Good to talk to you again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.