Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Brief Thoughts on Sen. Arlen Specter’s “Conversion”

International readers may be less interested in this posting, since it concerns yesterday’s surprise announcement by Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania that he is switching political parties from Republican to Democratic.  Strangers to these shores may be surprised to know that this is legal (without resigning your elected position, despite the fact that voters thought they were getting an official in a different party).  Partly, the legality has to do with the fact that political parties (or “factions” as they were first called) are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Nor are they mentioned in any state constitution.  The Framers of our Democratic Republic were generally against political parties and so, while not forbidding them, took no notice of them in designing our Constitutional framework.  Also, a Congressional/Presidential system like ours always involves at least some element of voting for a particular individual as an officeholder, rather than, as in most parliamentary systems, voting directly for a political party.

While not an everyday event, U.S. Senators have switched political parties more often than one might think.  The website of the U.S. Senate lists every party-switching senator (and parties, circumstances, years) since 1890.  The party switches while in office usually occur at a time when the nation is moving dramatically in one political direction (i.e., more  liberal or more conservative) while the party-switcher is in a political party moving in the opposite direction and the party-switcher feels out of touch with the nation and/or his/her party.  For example, after the 1994 mid-term Congressional elections (the “Gingrich revolution” or the “Conservative Resurgence”) in which the nation seemed to repudiate the direction set by Pres. Bill Clinton (D) and move sharply to the Right, Democrats lost badly in both the Senate and House–with the Republicans gaining the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in over 40 years! (I say “seemed to repudiate” because, to the shock of the Republicans, Clinton was resoundingly re-elected in 1996!) After that 1994 loss for Democrats, matters were worsened when several moderate-to-conservative Democratic politicians switched parties, including Sen. Richard Shelby of AL (D, 1987-1994; R, 1995-present) and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of CO (D, 1993-1995; R, 1995-2005).  Thus, Specter’s switch yesterday could presage other party switches, although at the senate level the more likely pattern is retirement (already announced for Sens. Voinovich (R-OH), Martinez (R-FL),  Bond (R-MO), Brownback (R-KS), &  Gregg (R-NH); others to watch include Grassley (R-IA), Lugar (R-IN), Bunning (R-KY), & McCain (R-AZ) ).

An element of opportunism and self-seeking is almost always included.  Specter was remarkably honest about this aspect of his party-switching.  Already facing a tough re-election in a state that was rapidly becoming more Democratic, after Specter voted for the Obama economic recovery bill, Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele (former Lt. Gov. of Maryland) threatened to fund a primary opponent for Specter and for the 2 other Republican moderate senators who voted for the bill.  Soon, Club for Growth (a radically conservative group) president Pat Toomey, whom Specter had barely beaten in the PA Republican primary of ’04, announced his primary challenge to Specter in 2010.  PA has a closed primary, meaning that only Republicans could vote in it, and PA Republicans are now smaller in number and more conservative than ever before.  Polls soon showed Specter losing to Toomey by 20 or more points.  PA has a sore loser law so that Specter could not pull a Liebermann–lose in the primary and then re-register as an independent for the general election.  So, he chose to switch parties, now.

My reactions yesterday were like those of most Democrats I encountered or read online:  Surprise (shock, even), then elation that, when Norm Coleman’s never-ending court challenges to Al Franken’s narrow victory are finally over in Minnesota, Democrats will have 60 of 100 Senate seats–enough to shut down filibusters by the minority and pass the ambitious agenda they and Pres. Obama  campaigned on and were elected to pass.  I, like others, quickly became less enthused.  Specter will not be a reliable vote on many of our priorities.  He is now one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, maybe more conservative than Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln  and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. He has already said that he will vote against Labor’s big priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, even though he was a co-sponsor of a very similar bill in 2007 and 2008 and even though he must have the support of Labor to win reelection in PA–no matter which party he inhabits.  He also says he plans to vote against Pres. Obama’s nominee for Asst. Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, Dawn Johnsen. (Many Republicans who oppose Johnsen claim to do so because she is pro-choice on abortion, even though her job will have nothing to do with abortion, but since Specter is pro-choice, that cannot be his objection. He must oppose Johnsen because of her strong objections to torture and specifically the torture memos authored by the Bush lawyers of the OLC.  Nice, Arlen.)

So, I’m not sure that I’m too excited about Specter’s switch of parties.  Sure, he is better than Toomey, but I think PA can elect a much better Democrat than Specter.  Joe Torsella (D-PA), the Chair of the State Board of Education, is already in the race and has no plans to back out for Specter.  Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA), are considering entering as Lynne Abraham (D-PA), the District Attorney for Philadelphia.  Although I would prefer that the progressive Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) be recruited, any of these fine Democrats would be more deserving  of the office than Specter.  However, I do not want ALL of them to run. A crowded Democratic field would favor Specter on sheer name recognition.  He will have enough advantages since both the PA and national Democratic establishments, including Pres. Obama, have pledged to support Specter.  (How far off the reservation would Arlen have to go before that would change and the establishement at least became neutral?)

Of course, this is the problem of having a governing party:  A minority party can be tightly disciplined, please its  base most of the time, and purge wayward members.  But a party large and diverse enough to win national elections and get the chance to govern, of necessity has to put up with a greater range of views and voting patterns.  And, with the Republicans so out of touch and increasingly talking only to giant echo chambers (the latest Wall Street Journal poll shows only 21% of Americans now consider themselves Republican–down from 30% in last November!), Democrats are being forced to carry out both parts of the responsible debates in the middle. (This is why I believe that if the GOP keeps going in its current direction, it will cease to be a national party at all and Democrats will split into progressive and centrist-conservative wings.  Because the nation needs AT LEAST two functioning, healthy, parties.)

So, Specter’s conversion (or re-conversion–he was a Democrat until 1966!) is more bad news for Republicans than it is great news for Democrats.  There are now only 40 Republican Senators–something that hasn’t been the case for decades.  The only 2 remaining self-declared moderate Republican senators are both from Maine–and they are the only remaining congressional Republicans in all of New England.  (This was the Republican stronghold when I was a child.) There are 24 Senators in Northeast (New England and Middle Atlantic) states: ME, VT, NY, NJ, MD, MA, PA, CT, DE, WV, RI) and only 23are Republicans and 1 of those (Gregg-R, NH) has announced his retirement in 201o.  There are 26 Senators in the Midwest & Plains states (IL, MN, MI, OH, WI, IA, MO, KS, IN, ND, SD, OK, NE)–and only 10 are Republicans (16 Democrats). 4 of those 10 Republicans are retiring in 2010 and 3 of those 4 are likely to be replaced by Democrats.   There are 26 Senators from the Western States, including Alaska and Hawai’i, (CA, NM, CO, OR, WA, AK, HI, MT, ID, UT, NV, AZ, WY) and only 10 are Republican (16 Democrats).  ONLY in the Southern states are Republican senators dominant, making up 17 of the 24 Senators from the South (FL, NC, SC, AL, GA, MS, VA, TN, KY, LA, AR, TX).  And it looks like those numbers will further erode in 2010, even in the South (good chances for Democratic pickups in FL, NC, KY, and, if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) resigns to run for TX Gov., a fair chance at a TX pickup).

Yet, as I’ve said elsewhere, the Republicans are doing everything wrong to come out of the wilderness.  Look, they have a chance:  The economy is no longer in freefall, but we do not seem to have hit bottom and the road back will be long.  If unemployment remains high by June of 2010, the conditions would be right for Republicans to make large comebacks against Democrats–but they aren’t poised to take much advantage of those conditions as they pander to the right.  This is what Democrats did for most of the years between ’68 and ’92–moving well away from the American center and, thus, losing 5 of 6 presidential elections. Democrats never really got their act completely together until January 2005.  The Specter conversion suggests that the Republicans are in a similar point, now (and I still want a progressive to primary him).

April 29, 2009 Posted by | U.S. politics | 12 Comments