When Conservatives Go Liberal, And Vice-Versa

Major ideological change is quite rare among our legislators today, but it can happen based on genuine changes of heart or as a strategy to survive a changing constituency. Such cases are a source of great fascination for me. After all, who expects that they would change so greatly in their lives? Some of these legislators were even highly significant figures in their party. A few cases, with the percent scores being their MC-Index scores for the session of Congress:

Charles E. Goodell, R-N.Y., 1959-68, 1968-71.

86th – 85%

87th – 74%

88th – 81%

89th – 83%

90th – 67%

91st – 5%

As a legislator in the House, Goodell played an influential role in the power dynamics of the Republican Party, assisting Gerald Ford in defeating Charles Halleck for the post of Minority Leader in 1965. So what’s with the major drop off in Goodell’s score? He is the perfect example of the “strategy” change. From the 86th to 90th congresses, he represented an upstate district of New York with a strong Republican voting history. Thus, it behooved him to vote as a fairly mainstream Republican. However, in 1968 he was appointed to the Senate, and in his time in the Senate he proved an ultra-liberal, his intent being to win the Liberal Party nomination. Ultimately, his strategy was unsuccessful as he lost the 1970 Senate election, coming in third.

Joseph W. Martin Jr., R-Mass., 1925-67.

69th – 87%

70th – 93%

71st – 87%

72nd – 76%

73rd – 97%

74th – 88%

75th – 85%

76th – 94%

77th – 88%

78th – 88%

79th – 92%

81st – 91%

82nd – 89%

84th – 65%

85th – 65%

86th – 69%

87th – 62%

88th – 25%

89th – 56%

This man led the House Republican Party for twenty years and was twice Speaker of the House…and yet we see a strange evolution (or devolution, depending on how you see things) in his score. He goes from being a Coolidge Republican from the Coolidge to Truman years to being a Rockefeller Republican in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years. Perhaps Martin was moving with his fellow Bay Staters as they increasingly moved in a Democratic direction. Indeed, in 1958 he was ousted as Minority Leader because Republicans thought him too friendly to the opposition, even though Martin claimed such friendliness gave the Republicans perks not normally accorded to the minority party. He also appears to have undergone a bit of a genuine shift in this direction as well.

Paul J. Kilday, D-Tex., 1939-61.

76th – 59%

77th – 59%

78th – 76%

79th – 73%

80th – 56%

81st – 77%

82nd – 81%

83rd – 47%

84th – 30%

85th – 26%

86th – 23%

87th – 8%

Here is a rather unusual example of change to the left as it comes from a Southern Democrat. Kilday represented San Antonio in Congress and he got his start in 1938 by defeating the maverick liberal Maury Maverick in the Democratic primary. However, as Latino voting power grew in his district during the 1950s, he responded by shifting his record away from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. His successor in Congress was Henry B. Gonzalez, a staunchly liberal Democrat.

Paul Findley, R-Ill., 1961-83.

87th – 100%

88th – 97%

89th – 88%

90th – 85%

91st – 68%

92nd – 62%

93rd – 49%

94th – 60%

95th – 57%

96th – 65%

97th – 42%

In Paul Findley we have a perfect example of someone who went to change Washington and found themselves changed by it. He was initially a Goldwater conservative and his record nearly indistinguishable from the staunchest rightists of Congress. However, after the election of Richard Nixon he took a distinctly different path, proving to be one of the GOP’s more moderate members.

Let’s look at things from the other side…

Richard B. Russell, D-Ga., 1933-71

72rd – 25%

73th – 20%

74th – 33%

75th – 38%

76th – 37%

77th – 36%

78th – 47%

79th – 34%

80st – 34%

81nd – 68%

82nd – 37%

83rd – 53%

84th – 67%

85th – 63%

86th – 76%

87th – 78%

88th – 77%

89th – 76%

90th – 90%

91st – 90%

What we see in the case of Richard B. Russell is a long-run trend from moderately supportive of the New Deal and the Democratic program to a staunch foe of liberalism. In the case of Russell, the motivation behind this ideological change has a fair deal to do with civil rights as well as the increasingly urban (as opposed to rural) emphasis on the use of the federal government for aid. Russell, a rural Georgian, was much more sympathetic to rural than urban concerns, and by the late 1960s the focus was on urban issues as well as issues that focused on black people.

Ellison DuRant Smith, D-S.C., 1909-44.

61st – 0%

62st – 0%

63nd – 0%

64rd – 7%

65th – 20%

66th – 0%

67th – 13%

68th – 7%

69th – 20%

70th – 21%

71th – 0%

72st – 29%

73nd – 12%

74rd – 37%

75th – 36%

76th – 63%

77th – 68%

78th – 86%

“Cotton Ed” Smith reflects a tremendous and dramatic change in views of those from the Deep South. Smith started his career as a progressive and into the 1920s was regarded as such. He supported assistance to veterans, cotton, help for farmers, and higher income taxes. However, the New Deal really tried him, not only for its new innovations in the expansion of the federal government but also the previously unheard of outreach to black voters. When FDR made certain dissents of his focal points in his attitude towards him and chose to try to oust him, Smith became a decided foe of the Roosevelt Administration, which is reflected in his last three sessions of Congress when he votes conservative at least 63% of the time.

Roy O. Woodruff, P-Mich., 1913-15, R-Mich., 1921-53.

63rd – 20%

67th – 38%

68th – 33%

69th – 50%

70th – 75%

71st – 80%

72nd – 44%

73rd – 54%

74th – 81%

75th – 97%

76th – 97%

77th – 93%

78th – 100%

79th – 97%

80th – 100%

81st – 90%

82nd – 90%

Here I present a Republican example of someone who moved from left to right. Woodruff begins his career as a Teddy Roosevelt progressive, but he moves a bit to the right in the 1920s and by FDR’s second term, he is indistinguishable from the right of the Republican Party. He spent the rest of his career as a non-interventionist rightist. The New Deal simply proved too much for his prior notions of progressivism.

John E. Rankin, D-Miss., 1921-53.

67th – 4%

68th – 24%

69th – 13%

70th – 20%

71st – 13%

72nd – 33%

73rd – 23%

74th – 17%

75th – 33%

76th – 43%

77th – 59%

78th – 74%

79th – 87%

80th – 59%

81st – 89%

82nd – 76%

John E. Rankin began his career during the Harding Administration and his transformation is nothing short of stunning. While certainly a progressive figure in the 1920s and initially enthusiastic about the New Deal, he started taking issue with the New Deal during FDR’s second term with the Fair Labor Standards Act and then really started turning against the administration during Roosevelt’s third term. Rankin was also of the thought that the Democratic Party was a “white man’s party” and resented overtures to blacks and Jews and ranted against both groups.



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