On Tuesday, veteran Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter announced that he would defect from the Republican Party to join the Democrats on the other side of the aisle. This drastic decision, which will give Democrats a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority (provided that Al Franken is eventually seated in Minnesota), stunned party leaders and political observers. But in retrospect, it seemed like Specter’s only logical move. What forced his hand? And just how important is his conversion for Senate policy and President Obama’s agenda? What follows is a brief guide to the political calculus behind Specter’s flip-flop, and a snapshot at what it all means for politics and policy.
Before Tuesday, Arlen Specter was a member of a species just slightly less endangered than the dodo bird: the old-fashioned moderate Republican. In the Senate, only he and Maine’s two popular lawmakers, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, could be said to fit that category. Though these Senators usually voted along Republican lines, their occasional disagreements with party leadership over issues such as abortion, fiscal policy, and gay rights set them apart. Increasingly, so did their geography — these days, the Northeast Republican is also very much in danger of extinction.
Specter was elected in 1980, and is the Senate’s 12th-most senior member. But when he came to Washington at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, his mixed-bag approach to Republican orthodoxy put him near the center of his party, not at the margins. Specter’s support for abortion and affirmative action, and, more recently, his relatively liberal stance on immigration, gradually came to be seen as radical, not reasonable, by party members. And as Republican legislators took a hard right turn in the mid-’90s, veering even further during the Bush presidency, Specter looked increasingly like an anachronism. Still, in 2004, the senator received full support from Bush when Pat Toomey, a challenger supported by the ultraconservative Club for Growth, almost upset him in a Republican primary. Specter barely squeaked by the upstart candidate, 51% to 49%, but the race’s competitiveness was an ominous sign.
Even as his own party marginalized him, Specter became an increasingly important swing voter in the Senate, often wooed by Democrats. Perhaps his defining kiss-off to Republicans came a few weeks ago, when he, along with the senators from Maine, voted for President Obama’s stimulus package, giving the expensive proposal enough votes to pass into law. This break with anti-government spending ideas upset many conservatives.
But the writing on the wall had already come into clearer focus during last year’s Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In order to vote in the historic contest, 200,000 Pennsylvanians switched their registration from Republican to Democrat. And since the state holds a closed primary, meaning that only members of the party holding the contest can vote in it, the lost voters made Specter vulnerable to another challenge from his right. Indeed, Pat Toomey planned to face Specter again in 2010 — and held a yawning, 21-point lead in the latest polling.
So, like any good politician, Specter played the pragmatist card and did what he could to get re-elected. But as he emphasized in his own statement, this does not mean that he is an automatic 60th vote for the Democrats. Indeed, despite the general jubilation, many liberal commentators aren’t quite ready to welcome Specter with open arms — even if the president is. There are two overriding concerns: One is that Specter will be like the Keystone State’s version of Joe Lieberman — a senator who cannot be counted on to support his fellow Democrats on some important issues (to name a few, Specter is anti-gun control, anti-gay marriage, and against the Employee Free Choice Act). The second is that, by converting, Specter has ruined the chances of an actual, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat to come out of Pennsylvania in 2010. Joe Sestak, who probably foresaw a very winnable race against Pat Toomey, is now in the odd position of deciding whether to challenge Specter in the Democratic primary.
Of course, much depends on how Specter votes over the next few months on key issues such as healthcare and energy policy. Will he fall in line with his new comrades, or will his political unpredictability remain his defining characteristic? There is no real evidence to suggest that the party switch signifies any new philosophy on Specter’s part; in other words, he may have to prove that the new “D” next to his name stands for “Democrat,” and not just “defiant.”
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst