A cautionary tale for Justin Amash from someone who knows

The memories had faded, but the feelings came back clear, crisp and sharp.

Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashSanders co-chair: Greenwald charges could cause 'chilling effect on journalism across the world' Trump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall MORE (R-Mich.) had just announced that he was leaving the Republican Party and becoming an independent. I knew a little bit about being a congressman during a time of turmoil in my party, about leaving my party over a principled stand and about grappling with the consequences of my decision.

On December 23, 2009, I switched from Democrat to Republican. The proverbial feces flew into the fan and out again, giving me no chance to duck, dodge or kneel to pray.


The reaction was brutal from both sides of the aisle. The Democrats wanted their money back: the Democratic National Committee was going to sue me; the constituents who elected me were still on an Obama high, especially the black voters who were instrumental in my victory. I saw tears and hate in their eyes. It was all very heartbreaking.

The Republicans, raw and bleeding from the defeat my team had handed them, were so uncontrollably hysterical that some probably had to be medicated. Rabies, although rare in humans, was diagnosed in both parties. I had contracted Political Ebola.

I was the oldest member of the freshman class of the 111th Congress. I had had a long career before entering politics. My background was influential in my decision to switch parties. I am a cancer specialist. Health care for all Americans was important to me. I had seen too many people die because of a late diagnosis.

Because of my M.D., I was often consulted about the divisive Affordable Care Act (ACA). Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama marks MLK Day by honoring King for his 'poetic brilliance' and 'moral clarity' Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina National Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo MORE was president, Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Justices won't fast-track ObamaCare case before election | New virus spreads from China to US | Collins challenger picks up Planned Parenthood endorsement Why Senate Republicans should eagerly call witnesses to testify Trump health chief: 'Not a need' for ObamaCare replacement plan right now MORE (D-Calif.) was Speaker of the House and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who had been my mentor during my run for Congress, was now White House chief of staff.

I was a Blue Dog, one of the last of a dying breed of Democrat. The proposed ACA had ignited the Tea Party. In Alabama having a black president and a female speaker was like throwing gasoline on that fire. Nobody bothered to see if the proposed health care law was poisonous: the guns came out and the shooting started. I was everybody’s target.

The decision to change parties came after a meeting in the Speaker’s conference room. I was asked for my opinion of the proposed bill. Here’s roughly what I said:


“If this bill passes, it will polarize the country and the newly-elected congressmen in this room who vote for it will not be back. We will flip the House to the Republicans. We cannot reform our health care system with a shortage of providers. It would be best if we increased the number of doctors and allowed nurse practitioners an expanded role in care. If we pass this bill, it will be for the leadership’s ego not for America’s health.”

My candid advice was met with frosty silence. Madam speaker and her team walked out.

The next day the House floor was buzzing about the Pelosi/Griffith exchange. A long-time friend sat down beside me. “She doesn’t forget a slight,” he said of Pelosi. “You will never be able to do anything.”

Days later I met with minority leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA time for war, a time for peace — and always a time to defend America Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Soleimani killing deepens distrust between Trump, Democrats MORE (R-Ohio). “I’ll switch if you put me on energy and commerce,” I told him.

He did. But nobody cared. The Tea Party beat me like a rented mule in 2010, and both parties were very happy I lost.

Since the switch I got back on the Titanic (the Democratic Party boat), ran for governor of Alabama in 2014, had a wonderful time—and went down in flames.

Benjamin Disraeli famously said, “Damn your principles. Stick to your party." Justin Amash and I fell victim to our egos and thought leadership really wanted thoughtful input.

Wisdom and good judgement in the young are usually an accident and rarely happen. I don’t know Justin. I do know he is smart. I also know the world is full of smart dummies and dumb smarties. I know which one I am, politically.

Now Justin Amash gets to find out which one he is.

Parker Griffith is a former U.S. representative from Alabama. A retired physician, Griffith was the first cancer specialist in North Alabama.