After the Republicans won majority control of the U.S. House and Senate in 1994, five House Democrats switched to the GOP and two Democratic senators also underwent "battlefield conversions" to the Republican side. Because most of the action and nearly all the power in any legislative body is located on the majority side, no Republican member of Congress had switched to the Democratic minority.
That was, until July 17, when third-term Rep. Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.) became Rep. Michael Forbes (D-N.Y.) after explaining in a statement, delivered in his suburban Long Island District, that the GOP had become "angry, narrow-minded and intolerant."
From the White House -- where the 47-year-old Forbes had an hour-long one-on-one meeting with the president before his party switch -- came Bill Clinton's statement that Forbes was "joining a party that welcomes independent thinking." Throwing open his own arms, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt informed Forbes, that "unlike the Republican Party, our party welcomes a diversity of opinion." Allow me to register a strong dissent.
On the day Forbes became a Democrat, the New York Times quoted "a senior New York Democratic official" who declared that "when you have a pro-gun, pro-life, pro-tobacco, pro-Articles of Impeachment congressman, that's not exactly the Democratic way." Some welcome mat. Other New York Democrats, with attribution, publicly condemned Forbes's "100 percent pro-life voting record."
This is not about gun control. While he was still a House Republican, Forbes broke ranks from his party to vote with House Democrats this spring for the strongest gun control bill. Tobacco is hardly a sticking point for Democrats, whose own presidential front-runner has recruited as the architect of his campaign message the same man who was hired by the cigarette companies to sink Sen. John McCain's anti-smoking legislation. If Bill Clinton can forgive Forbes's vote to impeach him, then what legitimate beef can other Democrats have?
For too many of them, it appears, Forbes the newcomer is not a convert to be hugged but an ideological heretic to be shunned because of one thing: his pro-life voting record.
For months now, we have read in editorials and columns about the urgent need for Republicans to build a "big tent" into which they may woo and welcome pro-choice Republicans. In 1996 innumerable pundits warned Republicans they would be "intolerant" if they did not permit pro-choice Massachusetts Gov. William Weld to address the party's San Diego convention. Four years earlier, these same pundit voices had been struck dumb when the Democratic National Convention refused to allow Bob Casey, the pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, to speak in New York.
Politics deals in shorthand. It is better for any politician to be called a moderate than to be labeled an extremist. Now, maybe someone can explain why the minority of House Republicans who are pro-choice are referred to as "moderates," while the minority of House Democrats who are pro-life are called "conservatives."
The orthodox Democratic position is not only "intolerant," it is losing political support. A 1998 New York Times national poll found that in the past decade, "public opinion has shifted notably away from general acceptance of abortion" to the point where "nearly 80 percent support requiring parental consent and a 24-hour waiting period."
Faye Wattleton, the former leader of Planned Parenthood, now runs the Center for Gender Equity, where the poll she commissioned by Princeton Survey Research shows that 53 percent of women, up from 45 percent in 1996, now say abortion should be illegal except for rape, incest and saving a woman's life, or else forbidden in all cases. Wattleton said the results were unexpected and "disturbing."
This spring, New Jersey's Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a favorite of pro-choice Republicans, agreed to a law requiring teenage girls to notify their parents before getting an abortion, thereby incurring the wrath of the National Organization for Women. The governor is running for the U.S. Senate.
Michael Forbes is no plaster saint. He knew what he was doing when he changed parties. But if he thought he was leaving "intolerance" behind, he was mistaken.