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


  1. Everybody knows he did it because he was down 21% in the polls leading-up to the GOP primary for his seat- and Joey Pluggs made a deal with him, he already admitted as such. The sad truth is that this hack has spent three decades in the Senate, while accomplishing little.

    And Barack and him have a lot in common- as unprincipled political opportunists, I’m sure they’ll get along just great.

    Just a little over a month ago, the Senator said in an interview that he wouldn’t switch parties due to the importance of checks and balances.

    And back in 2001, Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican, proposed a rule forbidding party switches… he was upset when Vt Sen. Jim Jeffords’ left the GOP to become an independent.

    Who knows what the truth is with this guy, you’ll never get it from him.

    With all due respect, Senator- don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out. Nobody on our side’s going to miss you.

    Comment by Reaganite Republican Resistance | April 29, 2009

  2. See, this reaction makes little sense to me. Toomey can’t win in PA. Tom Ridge can, but he’s more moderate than Specter. Specter always tried to sound independent, but usually voted the way the GOP wanted. Yet, people like you seem glad he’s gone.

    You do realize that you folk are bleeding members by the gallon full, right? Even if the economy remains sluggish, there is a very real chance that in 2010 there are 65-67 Democrats in the Senate and only 33-35 Republicans? And you could lose as many as 15 more House seats? While you’ve been having tea parties and spending all your money funding Norm Coleman’s endless loser parties (“challenges” to Franken’s narrow victory), Democrats have continued recruiting strong candidates, raising money, and registering more voters–in addition to actually getting things done we were elected to do.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 29, 2009

  3. I sit in awe of your knowledge of contemporary American politics. It is evident that your interest in these matters far exceeds that of the average guy on the street, of which I am one. I know, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Frankly, I am a little bit surprised, and pleased, that you put so much effort into this blog. The topics that you tackle and the work that you put into your writing deserve a wider audience. You are a thinking guy, not just another knee-jerk polemist, and the world could use more like you. Your work enhances my understanding and for that I am grateful.

    Comment by Steve Schuler | April 29, 2009

  4. Politicians rarely have an “awakening.” Usually their “conversion” is opportunist in nature. At least Spector was honest about his reasons for change. Eight years ago Georgia elected a Republican governor and legislature for the first time since the Civil War. A large number of Democrats “changed” shortly after the election. Their comments usually took the form of “my philosophy is now closer to the Republican Party than the Democratic Party,” which equated to “it looks as if I won’t get elected again unless I change.”

    Comment by Ralph | April 29, 2009

  5. Steve, I am just an amatuer political analyst, but I do write in other fora than just on a blog. I have written a book on the civil rights movement. I have written articles and book chapters on the death penalty, environmental ethics, theological ethics, hermeneutics, etc.

    Thanks for calling me careful on this blog, but I have also been polemist–and sometimes very impatient with some of my critics. (Just ask them.) I can even be knee-jerk in my reactions. But I think my background as an academic (once an employed academic) influences the way I see this blog.
    I began it as an attempt in 2005 to help change public debate. I was recruited by the observation that there was a growing Baptist presence in the blogosphere, but most of it fundamentalist in theology and rightwing in politics. So, I want to broaden that presence and show a different face.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 29, 2009

  6. Ha – ‘just an amateur political analyst’ pugh. You’re a very fine scholar and a good political analyst to boot – among other things.

    Comment by steph | April 30, 2009

  7. Exactly, Ralph. I wouldn’t say that was ALWAYS the case, though. When Sen. Jim Jeffords of VT, then a Republican, switched to Independent and caucused with the Democrats in 2001 (thereby throwng the majority in the Senate to the Dems and, briefly, halting W’s leading of the nation off a cliff), it did not bring him any advantage. He was already elected and part of the majority. His switch made him a big target by the GOP in ’02 and he had to know it.

    But USUALLY switches are as opportunistic as you describe and Specter’s was by his own really frank admission.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 30, 2009

  8. I do not have formal training in political analysis (not beyond a few undergrad courses, anyway) and am not paid to be a political analyst. Thus, by 2 definitions, I am an amatuer.

    This is even more obvious when I discuss international politics, but it is true about U.S. politics, too. Since I love politics (too much?), I am probably a very GOOD amatuer analyst, but that’s a different story. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 30, 2009

  9. No Michael, qualifications sometimes mean tiddly squot. What counts in your case is your lifetime experience and intellectual ability. What I meant to say is you are a very good political analyst who unfortuanately is not paid… And on the subject of qualifications and reaching certain standards through lifetime experience and intellectual abilities, although she has an MA in something or other from her younger years, did you know that Helen Clark has just been awarded (high time) an honoury doctorate from Victoria University? Good on her.

    Comment by steph | April 30, 2009

  10. The Republican party risks becoming a regional party or collapse entirely much as the Federalist Party of 1816-1820. Unfortunately for you this means a broadening of the spectrum of opinions within the dominant party, then as now the Democrats. Monroe went so far as to appoint John Quincy Adams, a former federalist, to the Sec. of State. This was a bone thrown to the Yankee Federalist of the Northeast. (Imagine Lindsey Graham!)

    To accomplish such majorities as the Dems have now comes by taking former Republican-leaning seats. That requires accomodation to accomplish. Progressives can only hope to make incremental gains with such a diluted crew if they don’t find themselves marginalized in their own party (not really new I know).

    Get used to more politicians like Specter and perhaps another “Era of Good Feelings” until a party reorganization comes along. I predict the catalyst will be a sizable tax hike in Obama’s second term.

    Comment by stan | May 1, 2009

  11. Michael,

    The President/CEO of America and Governor Rendell (sp.) have already promised their Primary support to used-to-be-out, now-in Specter, so your wish for a better Democrat won’t come true. Perhaps he should be call In-Retro Specter. 🙂

    If enough Pennsylvanians will remember that–to Obama and the Democrats–they’re bitter, backwards people, clinging to their guns and religion, then Toomey will be able to represent all of Pennsylvania’s, except the Philadelphia metro area’s, population’s values and desires as U.S. Senator.

    Comment by Chuck | May 1, 2009

  12. Sorry, Chuck. If Obama, Rendell and the Democratic machine is betraying ordinary Democrats for Specter, then Toomey is being betrayed by the GOP machine. They suckered him into quitting his job with the Club for Growth to run against Specter in the GOP primary, knowing he’d probably lose in the General election. Now that Specter has switched sides, the GOP machine is trying to recruit former Gov. Tom Ridge (who is actually more moderate than Specter in some ways) and they will dry up all the money for Toomey.

    Looks like the activists in both parties have been suckered. But Toomey has less of a prayer than a true Democrat like Rep. Joe Sestak or Rep. Allyson Schwartz. PA is no longer GOP-friendly. Democrats outnumber all other registered voters, now, and Independents outnumber Republians–and Independents hate Club for Growth market fundamentalists. (This is why CfG candidates win GOP primaries and then lose general elections. Constantly.)

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 1, 2009

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