Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter's Switch

Today Pennsylvania's senior senator, Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), said he is leaving the Republican Party, and run in 2010 as a Democrat. Mr. Specter was considered one of the moderate-to-liberal members of the Republican Party. On the social issues, Pennsylvania's senior senator has aligned himself with the libertarians and the liberals, thereby winning himself the votes of Philadelphia's culturally liberal suburbs without offending Pennsylvania's conservative Republican base too much.

The culturally liberal voters of Philadelphia's suburbs liked his votes to uphold abortion rights, extend basic job protections to gay and bisexual workers (ENDA), and grant illegal immigrants amnesty by offering them a "pathway to citizenship." The Republicans' culturally conservative voters, while not pleased with his voting record on the cultural issues, found an ally on gun rights and hate crime legislation (though he once supported it). Liberals and libertarians found some support when he voted to protect the habeas corpus rights of "enemy war combatants" and his critical stand against Bush's warrantless surveillance program.

Mr. Specter's economic record wasn't reliably conservative or liberal. He voted for the Bush tax cuts. He voted for He voted for card-check (though he now says he will vote against it, and most recently for President Barack Obama's stimulus package but against Obama's budget. Obama however, might have an ally on health care. He voted to extend SCHIP protections to legal immigrants, and, earlier, to override his predecessor's veto of the 2008 medicare bill.

Pennsylvania's senior senator has a mixed record on free trade as well. He voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement but for similar agreements with Peru, and Oman. In all likelihood his defection won't help the Democrats reach a filibuster-proof majority. The Democratic Party's margins are increasing because the Republican's base is weakening. The Democratic Party's base still needs to win over the votes of moderate "conservaDems" like Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana), Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) and Senator Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) to break filibusters.

In his press statement, Specter attributed his switch to the heated opposition he faced from Republicans displeased with his vote for President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. Last month, however, Pennsylvania's senior senator said he would run as a Republican. He nevertheless faced stiff opposition from the conservative wing of the Republican Party. In his last primary race, he edged Pat Toomey by a 1,7% of the Republican's primary voters. Recent polls showed Toomey winning the rematch.

Mr. Specter knew the writing on the wall. The Republicans that would have voted for him switched sides to vote in last year's Democratic primary. Pennsylvania's senior senator did not believe he could get them to switch sides to vote for him in the Republican Party. The moderate wing which he belonged to was dwindling. Senator Jim Jeffords (R-Vermont) retired after first, leaving the Republican Party and caucusing with the Democrats. Senator Lincoln Chaffee (R-Rhode Island) survived an expensive primary challenge only to be ousted by Senator (then Attorney General) Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island). Congressmen Rob Simmons (R-Connecticut), Chris Shays (R-Connecticut), and much earlier Connie Morella (R-Maryland) lost their seats ion the House side.

Senator Specter obviously switched to save his political career. He did not want the conservatives to oust him from his senate seat even though he was criticized for moving Bush's judicial nominees through the system quickly.

He did, however, represent the increasingly marginalized moderate wing of a party that is dwindling in size day by day. Its minority problem (the failure to win over Arabs, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, gay Americans and religious-minority Americans) has become an American problem. In the last presidential election, the party's anti-intellectual strain was at its peak. Senator John McCain appointed the know-nothing governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin, to serve as his vice presidential running mate. It portrayed itself as the party of "real Americans" while dissing "community activists," and the voters in the urban areas. It ran on the same-old small-government, anti-tax agenda while failing to address the economic issues facing Americans who feared they may lose their jobs and homes at any moment.

Congressional Republicans defined their party as "the party of no," by voting against Obama's economic stimulus package while offering no new ideas. Governor Bobby Jindal (R-Louisiana) used his Republican response to Obama's address to Congress to oppose of all things, volcano research. Republican governors who are thinking of running for president initially turned down economic aid awarded through the stimulus package. One opposed unemployment benefits. Another wanted to use the money to balance the state's budget.

The Republicans really have to get their act together. Do they really want to oppose the funding of basic government services (like, say, railroad construction), and if so why would they want power in Washington?

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