The big political news of the day is the announcement from Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter that he is switching parties and will be running as a Democrat in next year’s election. The two big questions are “Why did it happen?” and “What does it mean?”
The first is much easier to answer. In 2004, Specter faced a challenge in the Republican primary from conservative Pat Toomey. Toomey campaigned against Specter saying that he was too liberal. In that primary challenge, Specter barely won. Toomey has already announced plans to run again in 2010. However, the Republican electorate has shifted largely to the right since Specter’s last election. This is due in large part to last year’s pro-longed Democratic primary fight between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Since Pennsylvania has a closed primary system, many moderate Republican voters changed their registration so that they could participate in the Pennsylvania Presidential Primary. In fact, voter rolls show that over 200,000 Pennsylvania Republican voters switched their party affiliation. While some of them were conservatives who were trying to cause trouble as part of Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos,” most were the moderate Republicans who had been voting for Specter over the years. The same voters were not switching back to the Republican party and Specter realized that he would not be able to beat Toomey without them.
The final nail in the coffin for Senator Specter was his support of President Obama’s stimulus plan back in February. The conservatives in Pennsylvania did not take kindly to his vote and were looking forward to taking him on in the primary next year to hold him accountable for the vote.
Many Republicans are critical of Specter saying that he is being opportunistic and looking out only for his career. While there is certainly some truth to that, I don’t think you can discount the fact that a large number of his Republican constituents left the party before he did. In other words, Specter is simply following that part of the party which elected him to the Senate five times. He may be one of the few politicians who can say that he didn’t leave his party, his party left him and he would be able to back that assertion up with hard data.
So, what does this all mean? There will be a lot of talk about the fact that Specter’s switch will put the Democrats at 60 Senators (assuming Al Franken holds on to his lead and becomes the Senator from Minnesota). This will allow the Democrats to stop a Republican filibuster. While practically, that is true, it assumes that the Democrats will all stay in line. Democrats need only ask the Republicans if they can expect Specter to always do that.
More importantly, I would like to look at what it means politically for the Republican Party. It means that the Republican Party is moving further and further to the right. I heard on radio and read a lot of “good riddance” and I know that there are many Republicans who are actually glad Specter left the party. Do not count me as one of them. The history of the success of the Republican Party was based on the alliances of the cultural conservatives, the defense minded hawks and the pro-business advocates. Here in the Northeast, a large percentage of the party was that pro-business group who were sometimes socially liberal and were known as the “Rockefeller Republicans.” That wing of the party is now almost gone. Maine Senators Snowe and Collins are probably all that is left of that dying breed.
Without that wing of the party, there is really not much left. The Democrats are not near the “peace-niks” they were back in the days of the Cold War, so it is getting harder and harder for the Republicans to criticize a Democratic candidate as soft on defense. All that leaves the Republicans with is the cultural conservatives, and while I agree with them on the issues a lot of the time, they are certainly not a group that looks to try and be inclusive and create large governing majorities – something necessary to win national elections. I know that there are Republicans who are trying to say that they are the party of fiscal discipline and lower taxes, but I still believe that such a message is tone deaf in these tough economic times. It is specifically when the economy is bad that the electorate looks to the government to step in as the last possible source of help and to be critical of such a plan is going against a tide and may only result in further electoral losses.
One of my favorite political commentators is Michael Smerconish, a moderate-to-conservative Republican radio talk show host here in Philadelphia. I think he said it best when he was commenting on the Tea Parties that Republicans were holding back at tax time. He said, “It's too late for tea. At this stage the Republican Party needs a double espresso.” In other words, they need a wake up call. I couldn’t agree more. I fear that if the Republican Party does not heed the warning of Specter of the Republican Party that they will become a specter of a Republican Party.