Principle or Politics?: Specter party switch had nothing to do with party ideology

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

Arlen Specter has now made official – he is a Democrat.

That, of course, is something we have known all along. Arlen Specter has acted more like a Democrat than a Republican for years. He is a large part of the reason why the GOP’s brand identity became so blurred voters have abandoned it in droves. The senator will be more at home in the Democratic Party, although it remains to be seen whether or not the switch in party affiliation will result in his re-election next year.

In announcing his party switch Arlen Specter said the Republican Party he first ran in back in 1980 had moved to the right and deserted him. He is wrong. At its core, the mainstream grassroots of the Republican Party is today the same fiscally and socially conservative party as it was in 1980. The Reagan Revolution was built on a three-legged stool of social, economic, and strong national defense conservatives. The same holds true today. Arlen Specter never was, is not today, and never will be an ideological conservative. What changed? The grassroots of the Republican Party finally got wise to Specter’s act.

Throughout his career Senator Specter has moved back and forth from the middle to the left of the political spectrum, something pundits have often described as the "Specter Shuffle." This ideology in motion has caused his career several near death experiences. His decision to vote against the confirmation of Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork enraged conservative Republicans. His aggressive questioning of Anita Hill during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings enraged liberal Democrats. Specter then, as now, tried to be all things to enough people to cobble together a winning electoral coalition. At no time have principles mattered.

The lit fuse that set off the current political explosion was Specter’s vote on the so-called economic stimulus bill back in February. Again, it is hard for Specter to credibly argue that the GOP left him on that issue. Every single Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and all but three senators voted against the stimulus bill. It was a defining issue for a Republican Party seeking to reclaim it tarnished national brand. And on that critical vote it was Specter who abandoned the Republican Party, not the Republican Party that abandoned Specter.

This time Specter’s vote was one apostasy too many. Pat Toomey, who nearly defeated the incumbent in the 2004 Republican Primary dropped plans to run for governor and announced on April 15th that he would again challenge Specter for the senate seat. Polling consistently showed Specter trialing Toomey by 20-points or more. It was clear this time Specter had painted himself into a political corner from which there was no escape.

No, the Specter switch was not a move of ideological conscience; it was a crass political calculation. Specter conceded as much during a news conference announcing his party switch when he condescendingly proclaimed that he would now allow Republican primary voters to decide the fate of his 28-year senate career. Rather than accept the fact he could not win re-election as a Republican, Specter has tossed the dice and gambled that his political future will be longer as a Democrat.

It is a risky move. First, the Democratic Party is notorious fractious and Arlen Specter will not be welcomed with open arms by all. He will likely enjoy the support of his one-time employee in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Governor Ed Rendell. And national Democrats, much like their Republican counterparts had done for years, will likely support the incumbent over other challengers. But one group in particular could be problematic, and that is organized labor. As he struggled to regain his political footing within the GOP after the stimulus vote Specter flip-flopped on the Employee Free Choice Act or Card Check, infuriating the labor movement. Specter says he won’t switch positions again, but it is hard to see how he can be successful within the ranks of the Democratic Party unless he does.

In the potential general election match-up between Specter and Toomey, Toomey will have a number of advantages. First, unlike Specter he will have the passionate support of his party’s base. No candidacy can be successful if it cannot excite its base. Toomey will while Specter’s reception among core Democrats remains to be seen. Second, Toomey will perform well in western Pennsylvania, which has been trending more conservative and more Republican in recent election cycles. Third, Toomey will best Specter in the Lehigh Valley – his old congressional district – which is a key swing area in statewide politics.

The big challenge for Toomey may be the prevailing national trend in November 2010. If the trends of the past two cycles, 2006 and 2008, continue the race will be uphill for any Republican running statewide in Pennsylvania. But, three such elections in a row are unlikely and by next November the election will be a referendum on President Obama and the policies of the Democratic Party. And that is a party that now includes Arlen Specter.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail is [email protected] )

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