In his press conference today, Specter gave two main reasons for the switch:
- The Republican Party has moved too far to the right.
- He can't win the upcoming Republican primary election.
Both reasons are absolutely correct and interrelated. In that way, I respect Specter's frankness in all of this. On one hand, he talks about his growing ideological differences with the party, which he's now a little more free to discuss. On the other hand, he acknowledges the political calculation and simple self preservation involved.
GOP Growing Smaller and More Conservative
The move says more about the general political climate than it does about Specter himself. Arlen Specter can't win Pennsylvania's Republican primary against old-fashioned, corporate-conservative Pat Toomey because the Republican Party has turned hard to the right. Why has the party moved to the right? Because most of the moderates like Specter have already left. In the run up to the presidential campaign, 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans became Democrats. Those were 200,000 people who would have been likely to vote for Specter in the primary.
The Republican Party continues to shrink. Moderates run for the exit while the die-hard corporate hacks and social reactionaries assume more power, scaring away even more moderates. I predict that this cycle will continue at least through the 2010 elections, probably through the 2012 elections. The GOP is increasingly a regional political party focused in the South and the Mormon Corridor. It's snow White and elderly. And they don't have ideas.
Much is being made of the idea that Specter's party switch means that Democrats will have a 60-seat "filibuster-proof" majority in the Senate. Although 60 seats will be a reality, we don't yet know enough to say that the filibuster situation has changed significantly. There is no reason to believe that Specter has seen the light and had some great progressive conversion. He has already said he will not vote to stop a filibuster against the Employee Free Choice Act. We can probably assume there are plenty of other issues where he will do the same. Also, the other conservative members of the Democratic caucus have not suddenly disappeared. There are still Liebermans and Nelsons and Bayhs. On big issues, it will be difficult to get all 60 members to act in unison to override the
Confederate Party's Republican Party's obstructionism.
Make Specter Become a Real Democrat, Or Replace Him With One
The best thing that could come out of this would be for Specter to be pulled further to the left in the coming months. Instead, if he ends up being the same Specter--but with a D after his name--then the change will be mostly meaningless. We need him to come around on big issues, like a public health plan and Employee Free Choice. The best way to make that happen would be to challenge him with a strong progressive candidate in the Democratic primary. Make Specter compete for labor's support. Make him explain to Democratic audiences why he opposes the EFCA.
Unfortunately, it looks like part of the deal for him switching parties was that the Democrats would "clear the decks" for him in the primary. President Obama has even offered to campaign for Specter. Huh? I recognize that you want to reward high-profile crossovers. But I think Democrats are giving a lot more than they are getting in this deal. Specter needs Dems way more than Dems need Specter. Instead of going with Specter, Democrats could win with an unabashed progressive.
It makes me think--and hope--that there is more to this deal than what we know right now. Maybe Specter assured Harry Reid that when the chips are down, he will vote for cloture on healthcare reform, cap-and-trade, or Employee Free Choice. I hope there is more to it. Because although Specter's party switch says good things about our shifting political climate, the excitement about the "filibuster-proof" majority is overblown at this point.