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Barnburner or Instant Star?: Conversion Stories at Republican Conventions

Representative Artur Davis

Representative Artur Davis. June 1, 2009. Photo by the Artur Davis Campaign. CC-SA.

The old adage that “if you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 40, you have no brain” is much more than a clever quip at Republican conventions.  The convert story has a long history at these GOP gatherings and has come to hold a semi-official place on the program.  Last night Artur Davis was the latest Democrat-turned-Republican to fill this slot.  And while the prime-time TV audience may have missed it, inside the hall, Davis and his conversion story was the sleeper hit of the night that captivated the GOP faithful.

Democratic conventions often have their own breakout performances, too.  In 2004, for instance, Barack Obama’s speech made him an instant star.  In 2008, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer offered up a classic red meat barnburner that upstaged the evening’s headliners.

But for Republicans, it’s often the story of the disillusioned ex-Democrat that steals the show.  This time-honored role at GOP conventions has no corollary at the Democratic counterpart (though Charlie Christ will try his hand at it next week in Charlotte).

Part of the explanation for Republicans’ adoration for the convert may lie in the relative lack of youthful energy and idealism that often fuels Democratic conventions and electoral campaigns.  Lacking that rock star quality— which Davis summarized last night as “plywood Greek columns and artificial smoke…Hollywood stars and glamour,”—Republicans like to counter with, as Chris Christie put it during his show-closing Keynote Address, “tell[ing] us the hard truths we need to hear.”  Who better to hammer home this sober message for Republican true believers than a convert who used to revel in the Democrats’ decadent culture of Valhalla excess?

The conversion story also resonates for Republicans because it’s such an integral feature of the party’s modern history.  GOP hero Ronald Reagan is perhaps the most famous convert.  A once proud Democrat, Reagan lamented in 1964 that his party had left him and publicly proclaimed his conversion: “I have spent most of my life as a Democrat [but] I recently have seen fit to follow another course.”  It’s a theme Republicans have embraced and put on display ever since.  The convert story also has deep roots in the closely linked conservative movement.  Irving Kristol, for instance, delivered the famous line that a neoconservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

But nowhere has the conversion theme had a more prominent and celebrated role than at Republican conventions.  The most prominent converts to take the convention stage include Jeanne Kirkpatrick in 1984, Colin Powell in 1996, Zell Miller in 2004, Joe Lieberman in 2008, and now Davis in 2012.  And more than simply being invited to deliver a speech, these figures and the stories of their ideological and partisan journeys have consistently stolen the show.

As far as converts go, Davis’ story is particularly compelling because it happened so abruptly.  Whatever Davis lacks in name recognition, he makes for in his direct ties to President Obama.  Just four years ago, Davis was the first member of Congress outside of Illinois to endorse Obama for president.  He followed that up by seconding Obama’s nomination at the Democratic convention.  And last night he addressed his “fellow Republicans” in Tampa and made the case for Mitt Romney to other disillusioned ex-Obama supporters.

For some hardline elements of the both the GOP and the conservative movement, these converts have often been viewed with suspicion, if not outright condemnation.  Those who change their partisan colors but fail to adopt the lockstep orthodoxy of the longtime subscribers can quickly morph from a heralded newcomer into a weak-willed RINO (Republican in Name Only).  But when it comes to Republican conventions, the convert plays a treasured role.

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