Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thoughts on Specter's Switch

It made perfect sense for Sen. Arlen Specter to announce, as he did today, that he is switching parties and becoming a Democrat. I was still surprised to hear it, because I thought he had publicly ruled out such a move. 

In his press conference today, Specter gave two main reasons for the switch:
  1. The Republican Party has moved too far to the right.
  2. 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.

"Filibuster-Proof" Majority?

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.


Gary said...

Political parties always seem to overbid for these sorts of deals.

Because of that, I doubt EFCA was part of it. The cost of making a politician 180 on a public stance has to be astronomical, and there are more than enough items on Obama's wish list that they'll need Specter for.

Mason said...

I was initially surprised to hear that Obama said he would campaign for Specter and that Dems would "clear the decks." But, the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Dems need a few crucial votes THIS YEAR on major legislation. The Dems' uber-welcome may just be what it takes to tip Specter's votes to the D column. I think the mindset of Obama is that if you can possibly get the votes, GO FOR IT, and don't wait around for an election in hopes that you'll have a better hand. If we can get a major health bill, a climate bill with cap and trade, and a EFCA bill through this year, then it will be worth having a pseudo-Dem senator. With legislative breakthroughs like these, the party can build more popularity that will result in more progressive candidates down the road.

Becky said...

Thanks for this very lucid analysis. I do think Obama campaigning for Specter is a bit much.

Then again, I live in fear that OBAMA will switch parties.

Better Than Machines said...

That's a good point about all the other items on the Dems' agenda. Specter can change on lots of things without having to flip flop again on EFCA. I would just wonder on what issues he might actually vote differently now. Who knows?

But at least his political center of gravity has changed. I just hope he has to run in an honest-to-God Democratic primary.