Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Arlen Specter's switch to the Democrats a blow to centrist politics and governance

Senator Arlen Specter ponders his future

Arlen Specter is changing parties, becoming a Democrat because he would face all but certain defeat against a Republican primary challenge by conservative Pat Toomey. Presumably,Toomey will now be the GOP candidate next year, and Specter -- who has secured strong support from President Obama and Democratic Party leaders -- will be the Democratic candidate.

Understandably, Democrats are thrilled. The switch brings the Senate Democratic caucus to the brink of having the 60 votes needed under Senate rules to overcome the filibuster. Although Specter may mean it when he says he'll still act independently, so that his vote can't be counted on by Democrats on every issue, there is no question that Specter will be more inclined to vote with the President and his new party's leadership on key matters than he is now. He'll owe them, and he'll need the support and help of Democratic leaders, contributors and voters, particularly over the coming year and a half in the run-up to his reelection contest.

Quite a few conservative Republicans -- at least those who don't hold public responsibilities -- seem almost as pleased. Some bloggers on the right (e.g., here and here) are positively happy about seeing Specter go. Since most of these folks were supporting Toomey against Specter, I suppose their reaction is understandable, too. They were doing their best to defeat Specter for the offense of being (as they call moderate Republicans) a RINO (Republican in Name Only).

But it's not a good development for the tens of millions of Americans who comprise the vital center of American politics. Those of us who prefer reasonable politics to rabid partisan warfare and smart, pragmatic government to flights of ideological fantasy would rather not see the last check on Democratic Party power -- the Senate filibuster -- become a less tangible threat. For me, this remains true even though it's obvious that Specter has placed his own electoral prospects over all other considerations. I'd still rather have one more moderate Republicans serving as a swing force in the Senate than a further consolidation of one-party power.

Specter's move -- and the reasons for it -- has much in common with Joe Lieberman's experience in 2006. Both Specter and Lieberman were attacked by the intensely ideological wings of their parties and challenged in a primary by a more ideologically "pure" candidate, rendering it impossible to win reelection without running on a different line. Of course, Joe ran and won as an independent and continued to align himself with the Democratic Senate Caucus (notwithstanding his independent backing of McCain for President). That was a more principled course of action than Specter has chosen. Still, both men have been targets of the ideologically driven wings of the two parties, which are intent on imposing their respective brands of purity.

There is much to be said for our two great parties continuing to operate as "big tents" as they have through much of our history. The fact is that most Democratic candidates at the national, state and district levels always get some conservative votes and win by attracting independents and moderates from the center in a general election. Likewise, most Republican candidates always get some liberal votes and win by capturing the center. However, the primary electorates of both parties, typically a small fraction of the general electorate, and the activists and contributors whose support is essential to winning primaries, are far more polarized and polarizing. Increasingly, the Democrats' left wing and the GOP's right wing have the best organized and funded operations (and cheerleaders in the media), so that moderate candidates like Specter and Lieberman are threatened. There is even a right wing challenger to John McCain in the 2010 Arizona primary.

This is dangerous stuff. Our politics has already become too contentious and bitter over the past three or four national elections. It is important to remember that since FDR collapsed the Republican ascendancy that prevailed outside the South from the Civil War on, most Presidents have been elected by broad, "big tent" coalitions. These coalitions constantly shifted so that millons of the same voters who elected LBJ in a landslide also gave Richard Nixon an overwhelming sweep a few years later and handed Ronald Reagan a decisive victory a few years after that.

The Specter change is likely to further encourage Democrats, who were already heady with success, to dream of a "new realignment" of American politics that gives the Democrats a permanent majority. Some caution would do them a world of good. It wasn't long ago that GOP strategists were singing a similar tune -- until voter unhappiness with the Iraq war and the recession combined to give them a hard dose of reality.

What's more, with or without Specter, the GOP is far from doomed -- even in the Northeast where the conventional wisdom is that Republicans are finished. This superficial CW ignores the fact that Connecticut , Rhode Island and Vermont currently have GOP governors and that just a few years ago, Republicans held the governorships in New York and Massachussets, as well. It also ignores the fact that New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine is running far behind his likely Republican challenger in his bid for reelection this year. And it ignores the very real possibility that Rudy Giuliani, if he runs, could win the 2010 race for New York Governor (or Senator) and the increasingly good odds for a successful Republican challenge to Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.

The key to all of these past and potential future GOP successes is the continued willingness of voters to elect moderate Republicans. The thing is that conservatives have to be willing to live with the fact that some moderates are going to get their party's nominations some of the time. If the Pennsylvania case is any guide, the right wing is determined to rule, even if the result is impotence and irrelevance.

What's your opinion about the Specter bolt? Post a comment.

1 comment:

  1. I don't have an opinion about the Specter-bolt, but wanted to say that was a well-written and reasoned post. Keep up the good work.