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.