Arlen Specter: From Democrat to Republican and Back Again

The second biggest story of the week—after the swine flu—might be the defection of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter from the Republican Party to the Democrats. Let’s look at the ins and outs of this story.

One significant plot line is that Specter gives the Democrats 59 seats in the Senate. If Al Franken wins his fight in the courts for the disputed Minnesota Senate seat, then the Democrats will have 60 seats out of 100—a filibuster proof majority. The Democratic agenda would be virtually unstoppable.

Closely related to this reality is the argument that Specter’s defection, and the Democrats’ further control of the federal government represents how out of touch the Republican Party is. Specter said, “Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right.” Specter went on to note how many former Republicans in Pennsylvania have switched over to the Democratic Party, adding, “I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.”

There are at least two things to look at here. One, who is Arlen Specter? And, two, is the Republican Party really dying off? Specter started out in politics identifying himself as a “Kennedy Democrat” in 1965. Party officials blocked his path to office back then, so he became a Republican and ran anyway. Over the years he has consistently been pro choice on the abortion issue. He supported the stimulus plan of George W. Bush, demonstrating party loyalty but not conservative fiscal values. His complaint that the Republican Party has veered to the right since Reagan stretches credibility. In 2008, Republicans nominated John McCain (hardly a right winger, as his public flirtation with the idea of a pro choice VP candidate indicated). Republicans backed W. in the two previous elections. Just because liberals hated him, it didn’t make Bush a conservative. His fiscal policies were never conservative. In 1996, Republicans nominated another moderate, Bob Dole. One might have a justifiable argument that the country has moved left, but pointing at the Republican Party for moving right is just off the mark. The reality is that polls showed Specter way behind against his most likely Republican primary challenger in 2010. This wasn’t about ideology for Specter, as much as it was about electability.

And what about the Republican Party as a whole? Things are looking bleak; however, in the 1960s The Democrats controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress. So what happened? Republicans won five of the next six presidential elections. In 1992, Democrats were again firmly in control of these two branches of government. By the next decade the Republicans had taken over. What happens with both parties is that they are made up of people who can’t handle power, and eventually the electorate turns on them. Will the Democrats learn from history and govern wisely? Let’s wait and see.