Death of a Moderate Republican

Arlen Specter’s unexpected switch further weakens the minority party

Looming in the background of last November’s presidential election was the possibility that the Democrats in the Senate could reach the magic number: By holding 60 seats in the Senate, they could overcome Republican filibusters and push through a liberal agenda without significant interference from their more conservative colleagues. But the Democrats fell just short, and, for Obama’s first 100 days, the president was forced to settle for a considerable but not filibuster-proof majority. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania changed that, though, when he announced on Tuesday morning that he would defect to the Democratic Party. Senators and political pundits alike called the switch a “game-changer” because of its effect on the makeup of the Senate. This remains to be seen. However, it is remarkable in that Specter admitted that part of the impetus of the switch was to avoid a primary challenge in 2010. This cynical political calculus may not represent what his constituents in Pennsylvania voted him into office for and certainly weakens the already marginalized Republican Party.

The primary challenge in question would have come from former Representative Pat Toomey, now the frontrunner for the Pennsylvania Republican senatorial nomination in 2010. Many believe that Toomey, who led Club for Growth, a political action committee for the advancement of fiscal conservatives, is more fiscally and socially conservative than Specter, who often votes with the Democrats, especially on abortion, immigration and the environment. Specter successfully defended his post against Toomey in 2004, but his frantic party switch indicates he feared losing the rematch next year.

It is disturbing that Specter, one of the few moderate Republicans left in the Senate, would rather abandon the Republican Party than take his chances against a more conservative primary opponent. As the Republican Party shifts further away from center, Specter’s defection shows that being a successful Republican means moving toward political extremes, while being a moderate Republican means imminent unemployment. More importantly, it shows that the GOP is either drifting right on purpose or is just powerless to stop itself. Specter’s close defeat of Toomey in 2004 was likely thanks to a late endorsement from former President George W. Bush. In this way, the president protected the existence of moderate Republicans, keeping his party diverse and balanced. However, there is no such central authority in today’s Republican Party. This lack of leadership and unity is apparent in Specter’s switch (which caught Senate Republicans completely off-guard) and makes the party’s weaknesses painfully evident.

Now that Specter has shifted party loyalties, his voting record will have to prove prove this was more than a desperate attempt to remain in power beyond 2010. However, as the Republican Party line is slowly radicalized, voting left of it should become easy, especially for a senator with a history of siding with Democrats. It is this history that makes Specter’s announcement less significant to Senate politics than most Democrats would like to believe. Ultimately, voting patterns may not change that much now that Specter has a “D” after his name. However, Specter’s defection is significant in exposing the slow extinction of the moderate Republican and the further marginalization of the Republican Party.