- Last Updated on Wednesday, 06 May 2009 20:01
- Published on Wednesday, 06 May 2009 20:01
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Last week, Senator Arlen Specter, the senior Senator from Pennsylvania switched parties and became a Democrat. This was a serious blow for Senate Republicans and for that matter, Republicans all over the country.
In a way, it was as if they were still losing the election of 2008. Some Republicans immediately called him a traitor and others, worried at what was behind it, expressed concern that it was a sign the GOP was losing touch with the mainstream of American voters.
One of the most immediate impacts of this switch will be in the Senate itself. The Democrats currently have 58 seats in the Senate locked up. However, with Specter’s defection and the likely seating of Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, this will give the party 60 seats in the upper chamber.
This number is important. Under the somewhat arcane rules of the Senate, it takes more than a majority to pass a piece of legislation. If opponents want to, they can, using the filibuster, talk a bill to death. They talk, and they talk, and they talk some more, and finally the other side, even though they have a majority, just give up and pull the bill from the Senate calendar. This mechanism was designed to avoid what Thomas Jefferson called the “tyranny of the majority.”
However, there is a way around it, but it requires that a bill’s supporters have sixty votes. Then, they can invoke what’s called “cloture,” bring debate to an end, and pass a bill with a simple majority. That’s why 60 is the magic number for the Democrats. With Specter, and assuming they can hold their caucus together, passing Democratic legislation, and in particular President Obama’s bills, is going to get a lot easier.
Specter’s decision to leave the Republican Party was based on two factors. One was ideological and the other a bit self serving. Specter’s support for the President’s stimulus bill enraged conservative Republicans. GOP Chairman Michael Steele even vowed to help defeat Specter in a primary. Such a statement is unusual from a national chairman. Not to mention reckless. However, perhaps the real reason was that Specter wants to stay in the Senate and that’s not going to happen if he stays a Republican.
Pennsylvania GOP voters are a lot more conservative than Specter and overwhelmingly they were ready to support his opponent in the GOP primary, former Congressman Pat Toomey. Toomey nearly beat Specter in 2004, but in a strange twist, it was President Bush and the Washington conservative establishment that saved the Pennsylvania Senator. Now, Specter, looking at certain defeat, decided to throw his lot in with the Democrats.
High profile party defections, while getting lots of press, aren’t all that rare. Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Richard Shelby, both Democrats, chose to become Republicans during the Clinton years. Each of them, arguably, decided they would do better under the majority Republicans than the then minority Democrats.
In 2002, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, formerly a Republican, decided to become an independent. However, he chose to caucus with the Democrats and in an evenly divided Senate that gave them a short lived majority.
Another notable party switcher was Phil Gramm of Texas. He was elected in the 1970’s as a Democratic Congressman (he went on to the Senate later), but in 1983, resigned, and ran in the special election as a Republican. It was an honorable way to handle the situation. He let the voters decide if they wanted him to stay their representative given that he had switched parties.
Specter’s defection however represents more than just one Senator looking for a way to stay in office. Specter is by no means a starry eyed liberal. His voting record is considered by non-partisan evaluations as moderate to conservative.
However, Republican conservatives have labeled him a RINO. That stands for Republican in Name Only. It’s a common barb used in attacking moderate Republicans, or even conservative Republicans with an independent streak, who veer away from conservative orthodoxy.
The only problem is that mainstream Republicans, people like my generally conservative neighbors, small business people, and just responsible middle of the road voters, are sometimes uncomfortable with the most strident conservative views. What’s more, they often like independent minded politicians. Right now for example, like it or not, the majority of Americans think that President Obama is most in touch with their needs.
Unfortunately, the Republicans, who could have used the recent debates in Congress as an opportunity to champion an alternative strategy, have mostly focused on being passionate opponents of everything the President wants to do. For some voters this is just fine, but for others, apparently the majority, it doesn’t look like good government.
What’s worrisome if that if the GOP, following its loss in 2008, decides that the way back to power is by becoming more and more conservative, they’re in for a big disappointment. Their success has always rested on the support of America’s moderate to conservative mainstream voters. If they lose this base, as they appear to be doing, they may be in for a long stay in the political wilderness. And as much as I not a Republican, the absence of a strong and viable Republican Party isn’t good for anyone.