by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

For most politicians, switching political parties can only be done once in a career. We voters can easily move back and forth between parties as times change, but there is no going back for an officeholder. The deserted party simply doesn’t want the traitor back, no matter what the cost.

Last week, Harrisonville Sen. Chris Koster made a dramatic switch to the Missouri Democratic Party, surprising members of both parties with his courageous move – a move no doubt driven mainly by the calculus of Koster’s hopes for victory in the 2008 race for attorney general, but a courageous one regardless.

Unfortunately for Koster and the Democrats, his conversion will not tip the balance of power in the Missouri Senate away from the Republicans. His switch means Democrats will now hold 14 of 34 seats in the Senate instead of 13. Had his seat been the tipping point, Koster’s announcement would have probably been viewed much differently by the minority party.

Instead, Koster’s move is seen mainly as an election tactic by many in a Democratic Party that thinks it already has one too many good candidates seeking the office of attorney general. Koster already has come under attack as a “Blunt Democrat” by those who point to his voting record as evidence of his loyalty to the unpopular governor’s policies. Of course, there are several Democratic officeholders whose voting records aren’t much different from Koster’s, but I don’t think that’s a discussion that either party wants to have right now.

It does, however, bring up the issue of what makes a good Democrat or Republican. Can one be a “party switcher” and still become a trusted member of the new party? Ronald Reagan rose to the presidency after converting from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1962. Would anyone say today that Reagan wasn’t a loyal Republican? Or that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton – who went from being president of the Young Republicans on her college campus to a Democratic senator during the course of her political career – is less of a Democrat today because of her Republican past?

Judging anyone’s trueness to a political party is difficult at best. No party represents a homogeneous viewpoint or an entirely coherent political philosophy, especially when viewed across the entire country. A Republican from Maine might vote more “liberally” than a Democrat from Georgia, whereas a Democrat from Montana might vote more “conservatively” than some Republicans.

What passes for a good Republican or Democrat seems to be related more to the situations of the day than adherence to a consistent political philosophy. The local chair of the Republican Party, Jack Walters, was ousted in 2003 after questioning President George W. Bush’s reasons for invading Iraq on a local radio program. Four years later, Joe Lieberman famously lost his own party’s nomination for Senate to Ned Lamont because of his support of the Iraq invasion. Each party has those within its ranks who try to act as judge and jury when deciding whether a candidate or office holder is worthy of party membership.

Most of us view political parties based on the stereotypes we develop from our perspective of the political landscape. If you hang out with Democrats, you might perceive Republicans as greedy opportunists and Democrats as the champions of liberty. If you move in Republican circles, you might see Democrats as lazy freeloaders and Republicans as defenders of freedom.

Unfortunately, political parties play on these stereotypes to keep their bases inoculated against messages from the opposing party. They know it is rare for one of their loyal supporters to actually check their stereotypes against the truth about the opposition’s voting record or stances on various policies.

Political parties have largely given up their political heritage in favor of courting power. The “conservative” Republicans are deficit spending, using the government to interfere in people’s personal matters and sending our troops overseas to police the world. Meanwhile, the “liberal” Democrats are responsible for free trade agreements that hurt U.S. workers and are trying to end our foreign military operations.

Winston Churchill, one of the only politicians to successfully change parties twice during his career, famously said: “Some men change their party for the sake of their principles; others their principles for the sake of their party.” Only time will tell whether Koster’s change in party is really about principle or politics.