Arlen Specter Leaves a Sinking Ship

Arlen Specter is switching from the Republican to the Democratic Party. While this is motivated largely by his personal electoral prospects, it is nevertheless another move towards turning the Republican Party into a regional party of the south and the Mormon belt of the west. In explaining this change, Specter cited the move by the GOP to the far right:

I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the Party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my Party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation.

Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.

Presumably Specter made a deal to keep his seniority but I have not seen any specifics yet. It remains to be seen whether this will meaningfully affect the amount of power the Democrats have in the Senate. Specter might wind up voting the same way, including on cloture, as he previously would as a moderate Republican. It is also possible that increased association with Democratic Senators, along with no longer being concerned with winning Republican primaries, could have some affect on his future voting record.

Besides further decreasing the amount of Republican Senators in the north, this adds to the view of the Republicans as a party in decline. Recent polls have showed that only twenty-one percent identifies themselves as Republicans. Karen Tumulty argues that one party has not had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate  since 1937 when considering the lack of ideological unity within the parties in more recent years. Can we even consider this a two party system anymore when one party has such little support?

That is actually a question which will become clearer in the future. The Republicans have had bad moments before, such as after the Goldwater loss and after Watergate, and have recovered. Still, today’s situation seems somewhat different. Voting against Goldwater didn’t necessarily mean permanent rejection of the GOP. Besides the political landscape quickly changed when LBJ alienated the south. Watergate was blamed on Richard Nixon and not the entire party.

Today it is not only individual Republicans but the views of the party which are being rejected. While an extremist faction has taken control of the party, increasing numbers of conservatives and moderates have begun to identify with the Democrats out of lack of any alternative.

Most likely the two party system will be restored, but it is not certain that this will be because of the Republican Party as currently constituted finding a way to revive itself. With so many of the remaining Republicans deluding themselves into thinking they lost because they are not conservative enough, the party could be on the way to extinction. In contrast the Democrats are becoming a big tent made up of a wide variety of views. I am increasingly suspecting that a future two party system will come about from a division of the Democrats over disagreements over future issues, either by the formation of a new party or a faction of Democrats moving to take over what is left of a dying Republican Party.


  1. 1
    Christopher Skyi says:

    I never thought I would abandon (for the most part), the GOP — I’ve always been a libertarian, but I would vote GOP if I though a race was close enough to call.  All that changed during the last mid-term elections when I voted democratic, to send a strong clear message.  People may burn Specter in effigee, but I think in the long run, this will be very good for the soul of the GOP. 

    Yes, the neo-con, big government, intrusive government version of GOP is dead and gone (at least in large degree) and — good riddance.  I never want to see that again.

  2. 2
    Christopher Skyi says:

    Of course, what I’m seeing now with team Obama — I’m starting to wonder if this a case of out of the fire and into the frying pan. Also — I misspelled “effigy.”

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I am actually really surprised by this. I mean, really surprised.

    There had been gossip about Specter going Democrat on HuffPo a month or so ago, but I had thought it was unsubstantiated musings by hopeful bloggers wanting to see a change in the Senate makeup.

    As for how Specter will vote… that has always been a bit of a mystery. In the Reagan era, he was consistently more liberal than now. In the first Bush administration, however, he was one of the leading Senatorial defenders of Clarence Thomas and really worked Anita Hill over in the confirmation hearings. In the Clinton administration he voted with the Republicans fairly consistently, in the second Bush administration he started drifting back to the left.

    I think there will be an inevitable left-ward drift, if a small one, in his votes as a Democrat. Caucusing with the Democrats instead of the Republicans, he is going to feel the same kind of pressure to make things happen that he felt to obstruct when he was caucusing with the Republicans. I tend to the think the liberal voting record of the Reagan era is the ‘real’ Specter and he is getting back to ‘himself’ after being caught up in the wave of Republican enthusiasm of the Gingrich-W. Bush era in the party.

  4. 4
    Fritz says:

    Why are you surprised?  Clearly he wants to be an employed octogenarian and he was toast in the GOP primary. 

    The best thing the PA Republicans could do is run someone young who keeps asking Specter if he would like to sit down and be comfortable in debates.    I think if I was almost 80 with recurrent cancer I would contemplate some nice vacations.

  5. 5
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I didn’t think the GOP was stupid enough to really blow off the Senate seat. I fully admit, once it was clear they were serious about backing Pat Toomey, this makes lots of sense. But I have been waiting for them to pull the rug out from under Toomey like they did in 2004.

    Toomey can’t win a general election in PA. He’s great for the GOP base, but one doesn’t win a general election in PA by rallying the GOP base. One doesn’t win a Senate seat in PA by running a guy from the Club for Growth. Toomey is too socially conservative to play well in Philly and the Pitt, and not populist enough to play well enough in the rural districts to outvote the urban and suburban districts.

    Worst of all, for the GOP, Specter has always had a lot of moderate and independent support that just will not be there for Toomey.

    I am kind of surprised they really went nuclear.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    I was wondering if the GOP would come to their senses and decide that backing Specter was in their best interest. In a similar case they did decide they would rather have Lincoln Chafee, knowing that their only choices were a liberal Republican or a Democrat. Specter is closer to the party’s beliefs than Chafee was. This may be a sign that the fanatics are even more firmly in control of the party now.

  7. 7
    Fritz says:

    Pennsylvania Republican primary voters (remember, we are talking about polls, not pols), were turning their back on a powerful incumbent.  This is very similar to the behavior of Democratic primary voters in Connecticut a few years ago.

    It’s interesting to me that Specter chose to highlight his support for large Federal deficit spending rather than the GOP social conservative tilt as his reason to make the change.

  8. 8
    Eclectic Radical says:

    “Pennsylvania Republican primary voters (remember, we are talking about polls, not pols), were turning their back on a powerful incumbent.  This is very similar to the behavior of Democratic primary voters in Connecticut a few years ago.”

    It’s not just about ‘primary voters’, though. Major party primaries are decided by major party activists. If the state party completely repudiates an incumbent and stirs up the party base (which is usually much more conservative or liberal than the majority of general election voters) in favor of his opponent, then the primary voters will turn out for the challenger. In this case, the ‘polls’ are very much linked to the ‘pols’. It is not possible to beat an incumbent in a primary unless this sort of political repudiation takes place at the state party level. Most primary voters tend to vote the way the state party machine tells them, the only time a primary really means anything is when there is a genuinely open primary in which none of the candidates enjoys monolithic support from the party organization.

    These state party shifts are very likely to accomplish nothing when the incumbent is entrenched and popular. In the case of the earlier Connecticut example, the state party repudiated Joe Lieberman and his challenger won the primary… and Lieberman won re-election over his liberal primary opponent and the more conservative Republican candidate by a significant margin in the general.

    In primaries, pols have lot to do with the polls.

    “It’s interesting to me that Specter chose to highlight his support for large Federal deficit spending rather than the GOP social conservative tilt as his reason to make the change.”

    Pennsylvania is reasonably socially conservative in the rural areas and some of the suburban districts. Specter’s success is built on the fact that the urban districts are too socially liberal for a conservative Republican and the rural districts are too economically populist for a corporate conservative candidate. He doesn’t need to accent the social conservative issue because one doesn’t win a state wide PA election with JUST Philly and the Pitt, and some degree of social conservatism is expected in the boondocks. Yet everyone, urban liberals and rural populists, want federal money. The fiscal issues are very important, and they trend in a way that favors Specter over an economic Social Darwinist like Toomey.

  9. 9
    Fritz says:

    “Everyone wants federal money”.  Too true.    Paying it back is a different matter.

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