The National Catholic Review

Not since Paul fell from his horse on the way to Damascus has a conversion caused so much comment and consternation as Sen. Arlen Specter’s decision to bolt the Republican Party and run for re-election next year as a Democrat. The consequences are immediate and not all of them are welcome.

The immediate upside is that health care reform took a big step forward with the switch. President Obama and Vice-President Biden have pledged to campaign for Specter next year and to help raise money for his campaign. They did not make these offers out of the kindness of their hearts. All the political loyalty of his twenty-nine year career in the Senate would have pushed him to oppose whatever proposals the Democrats eventually embrace. Now, a like pressure will be pulling him to endorse those same proposals.

The immediate downside is that while having a filibuster-proof majority might make things easier for the Senate Democratic leadership, the need to compromise with at least some Republicans has served as a check on the instincts of the Democrats. Our entire constitutional framework is designed to check ideological instincts and force them into negotiation and compromise. Of course, with conservatives like Sen. Ben Nelson within the Democratic Party, having sixty seats does not guarantee ideological purity. But, major policy changes should command a super-majority of the populace as expressed through their representatives in the Congress, and if that super-majority is bi-partisan, all the better.

The more remote upside is that the GOP has received a wake-up call. The country needs two vibrant, national parties and insofar as the GOP increasingly looks like an all-Southern, all conservative, ideologically driven, litmus test-demanding party, this is not good for the political life of the nation. If the Republicans can’t keep one of their longest-serving members, if the conservative base has become so dominant within the party that there is no room for moderates any more, that is not a good thing. Unfortunately, in the fierce denunciations against someone who was just a moment ago their colleague, the Senate Republicans showed that they may be hitting the snooze button on this wake-up call for a long time. The pressures that forced Specter to bolt exert their influence on the remaining Senate Republicans too. It was rich, indeed, to see him denounced for making a decision based on his election prospects coming from the party that once welcomed southern, conservative Democrats into its ranks for the exact same reasons.

The more remote downside is that Specter may have a more difficult time than he thinks holding his seat next year. Facing a difficult primary challenge from his right, Specter had already abandoned his prior support for card-check legislation that would make it tougher for businesses to engage in union-busting and union-preventing tactics. Now, he has switched parties and there is talk about finding a way for him to flip back. But, voters don’t like too many flips unless they are watching figure skating. Specter can say, as Reagan did before him, "I did not leave my party; my party left me" but he has to be careful of appearing like a weathervane.

Anytime someone breaks ranks with the party, it commands attention. Sen. Sam Brownback supported Gov. Kathleen Sebelius despite their differing positions on legalized abortion. Maine’s two Republican senators, the only GOP members of Congress from New England, joined Specter in voting for the President’s Stimulus Bill. Time alone will tell if Specter’s decision is one of the last, dying gasps of moderate Republicanism, or if enough GOP leaders will recognize that an ideologically pure conservative party is one that will have no home in large swaths of the nation outside the South. This is a telling moment, not because of what it tells us about Specter, but because of what it will tell us about the party he just left.

 

Comments

Anonymous | 5/4/2009 - 4:21pm
Newt is very much a Catholic, although I suspect the Catholicism of those who would say otherwise and wonder how such a comment was allowed to be posted. The switch in time to save nomination gains all the more significance with the retirement of David Souter.  We are about to be treated to a block "X" campaign by those who prize their pro-life credentials for their ability to raise funds, rather than to actually do anything for the unborn.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 6:08pm
Conversion? He's about a much a Democrat as Newt it a Catholic. It's walking the walk that counts, not talking the talk. At least Specter is open and above-board about his "independence" as a newly and probably temporarily minted Democrat. The farce of it all is that he has been grant a retention of his seniority, acing out long-term and proven Democrats when it comes to committee memberships.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 1:30pm
The "problem" with the Republican party is that they have "too" many pro-life/anti-abortion voters who will not compromise on this issue. Is that a problem? What the Democrats have going for them is that they have many "pro-life" Democrats who will vote for pro-abortion candidates. The issue about how the Republican Party should define itself won't change the Pro-life vote. "Unfortunately" for the Republican Party faithful, the pro-life vote in the Republican party is not stupid. If the Republican Party becomes "moderate" on the abortion then they no longer get the current Republican Pro-life vote. When will the pro-life vote in the Democratic Pary wise-up? The pro-life vote in the Republican Pary is a thorn in the side of those who will sell their sole for a vote. I wish the Pro-life Democrats would be a similar thorn in their party.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 1:25pm
I seem to remember that when Richard Shelby and Ben Nighthorse Campbell became Republicans it caused quite a bit of consternation. I think this move helps Republicans (or at least people with qualms about Obama's agenda) in the Senate, because it makes it less likely that Dems will try to pass legislation without allowing a filibuster, and that empowers people like Ben Nelson. Now maybe he can partner with people like Senators Casey and Pryor to ensure that any health care legislation that comes up doesn't include government money for abortion. As someone who wants universal healthcare coverage but worries about how it will be manipulated by the left in the culture wars (where the right is louder but the left actually achieves its agenda), that's one of the areas I'd like to see pro-lifers focus on.
Anonymous | 4/29/2009 - 5:22pm
Arlen Specter's decision to jump to the Democratic Party had nothing to do with political philosophy. I'm sure he would like to seize the high moral ground by saying that he did not abandon the Republican Party, rather it abandoned him. In reality, though, his switch was merely one of self interest. He would not have won renomination to the Senate as a Republican. Joe Lieberman left the Democratic Party for the same reason. But Lieberman was re-elected, and I doubt that Specter will enjoy the same success. The point that this should be a wake-up call for Republicans is well taken. The party is drifting farther and farther to the right, and is becoming more and more reactionary in it's philosophy. I feel that the vast ''silent majority'' of the moderate segment of the Republican Party (and I am a member of that group) is so disillusioned with the party's direction that the GOP will cease to be anything more than a whining, vocal minority far removed from any influence in governing. As long as we hold folks such as Rush Limbaugh on a pedestal, we're in a lot of trouble.
Anonymous | 4/29/2009 - 2:09pm
I could not have voted for Republican Specter with a clear conscience and I cannot vote for a Democrat Specter. Could any Catholic support this guy? If I were a "pro-life" Democrat, I would not be happy about this guy being in my party.
Anonymous | 4/29/2009 - 10:54am
One of the issues on which Specter has been on the Catholic side is comprehensive immigration reform. What a shame that the GOP will lose one of its few reasoned voices in that discussion.
Anonymous | 4/29/2009 - 10:50am
He said the radical right would not re-nominate him in the primary so he left before he was kicked out.. The radical right bishops are doing the same to Catholics with their slash and burn statergy.. one layperson at a time and maybe the whole sub-group of 95% of the US religious sisters..we shall see if smaller 'purer',leaner. meaner is the future of both Republicans and the US Church..
Anonymous | 4/29/2009 - 9:30am
Yes, congratulations to the Democrats. You've just gained another reliable vote for null restrictions on abortion, taxpayer funding of abortion, and embryo-destructive research who voted for the war in Iraq. As an independent, I don't pay much attention to the makeup of either party, but it was enlightening to read which views gives one an open door into the Democratic party. Again, congratulations!
Anonymous | 4/29/2009 - 8:58am
"Not since Paul fell from his horse on the way to Damascus has a conversion caused so much comment and consternation as Sen. Arlen Specter’s decision to bolt the Republican Party..." OK, that's a little over the top in viewing the world primarily through a political lens. St. Augustine, call your office, I guess your 'Confessions' didn't get enough 'comment and consternation.'
Anonymous | 4/29/2009 - 5:17pm
Stick a fork in the elephant, its done and the sooner the better. The system we have does not tolerate single party rule for long. After the GOP is further decimated in 2010 and 2012, expect the Democratic coaltion to fracture into two parties. Whether that fracture is no statism or abortion is hard to say - we shall see in five years or so.
Anonymous | 4/29/2009 - 10:44pm
Why do partisan democrats feel the need to give advice to republicans? Once again, my opponent would be better off if he were like me school of debate. Also, how did Mr Winters react when Senator Lieberman, a liberal on EVERYTHING except the war, was exiled from his party? Its ok though; when health care, card check, carbon caps etc go down in flames because of in name only democrats who are you going to blame?