Senator Arlen Specter’s announcement yesterday that he was defecting to the Democratic Party surprised a lot of people—but not me.
His move was a loooooooong time coming.
Specter ran into trouble with Conservatives in his own party way back in 1987 when he joined Democrats in defeating Ronald Regan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
One of those Conservatives happened to be my grandfather.
At the time, my grandfather was a well-connected, influential state legislator who pulled a lot of weight in the state GOP. Specter needed the state party’s support, which meant he needed the support of guys like my grandfather.
I remember sitting at the dinner table in the evenings and Arlen would call the house, trying to convince my grandfather about one thing or another.
This was 18 years ago or so. Even then, Arlen’s relationship with Conservatives was strained. The public got another dramatic view of that strain when Specter had to kowtow to President Bush in order to keep his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee just a few years ago. And of course, Specter was one of only three Republicans to support President Obama’s stimulus plan, further stirring up Conservative ire.
But I’ve seen the behind-the-scenes strain, too. I’ve overheard the phone conversations. I sat in the room as Conservatives at the state nominating convention tried to force an “open” primary instead of endorsing a candidate. I witnessed political wheeling and dealing and backstabbing disguised as glad-handing (not on my grandfather’s part, I should add!). As a cub reporter, I even had the chance to do a one-on-one interview with Specter–a favor he granted in an attempt to get on my grandfather’s good side.
The strain has been long and it has been ugly.
Specter tried to paint his defection from the party as a shift in principles by the GOP. “I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party,” Specter said, citing “irreconcilable differences” with the GOP. That is, in part, true.
But make no mistake: Specter jumped ship for the sake of political expediency. It’s no surprise that he faced a tough reelection bid in the Republican primary—he characterized his prospects as “bleak”—so the best way around that was to simply not participate in the Republican primary. At the same time, he cautioned Democrats that his vote would not be “automatic,” an attempt by Specter to maintain his independence, I suppose.
Had he truly believed he was independent, he could’ve changed his affiliation to reflect that. There are, after all, two other independents in the Senate right now (Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, both of whom caucus with the Democrats). Doing so, though, would deprive Specter of the political machinery a party would provide him for his reelection—and that, it seems, is what Specter cares about above anything else.
Republicans should take heed. They can wash their hands of Specter, but they adopt a “good riddance” attitude at their own risk. The GOP is in danger of marginalizing itself into irrelevancy. Yeah, it can go farther right—away from the moderate position Specter has occupied—and thus be proud of its purer Conservative philosophy, but from a completely pragmatic perspective, what would that small minority of Republicans then be able to accomplish? (And don’t forget, socially conservative Republicans and fiscally conservative Republicans don’t always make easy bedmates, either, so the potential for further schism exists.)
There’s one other overlooked factor at work here, too. If Specter has found himself more in line with Democratic philosophy as the GOP has shifted right, doesn’t that also suggest that the Democratic party has shift away from the left to a more moderate position? Is the Democratic party due for the same kind of inner turmoil that Republicans have faced, with centrists in a tug-of-war with the party’s left wing?
On one level, Specter’s defection is nothing more than personal political survival, but also it’s a symptom of the larger issues working against the GOP’s very survival—and Democrats should be careful the same thing doesn’t eventually happen to them, too.