Today's announcement by Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter that he was switching parties and running as a Democrat in the 2010 primary didn't come as much of a surprise to me, and truthfully I was expecting him to make this move long before now. Even though he has been flying the Republican banner for the past 30 years, he has voted with Democrats on quite a few occasions - one of the most prominent being the recent vote, along with Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to support the President's $787 billion economic stimulus bill. The more he has voted with his colleagues across the aisle, the more he has turned off the conservative base of the Republican Party.
Now I recognize that there are many situations in which bipartisanship is needed, and as such there are many members who are put in a difficult situation - vote with the party, or vote with your constituency. I'm not entirely familiar with the politics of Pennsylvania, aside from the fact that it is a heavily unionized state with a large blue-collar voter base. Specter has managed to get reelected in this demographic four times for what I can only assume has been voter satisfaction with his moderate stance.
This year, however, more conservative challengers are being run in primaries against Republican moderates in an effort to punish them for their efforts to reach across the aisle. Pat Toomey, who came close to upsetting Specter in the Republican primary five years ago, was polled recently with a 47-21 lead in advance of next year's race. And with such major issues as card check legislation looming on the horizon, Specter found himself walking a very fine line. In the case of card check, does he vote for cloture and lose his Republican support, or does he vote against cloture and birng about the wrath of the unions and Democrat voters.
His course of action? Change the initial behind his name and avoid Toomey - and many of the other issues - until the general election, when he stands a better chance at winning a sixth term. This seems like a baseless accusation at first hearing, but in his afternoon press conference Specter plainly stated that he was doing this because he couldn't win as a Republican.
Consider that for a moment: HE couldn't win as a Republican, so he switched parties. Is he looking out for his constituency, or himself? To me, he's only got one thing in mind - political survival - and it appears he's pretty much guaranteed that.
You'll recall that Senator Lieberman made a similar decision in his last race in Connecticut, but I see a very big difference in what others are trying to paint as a parallel. Lieberman, despite losing the backing of major-league Democrats, continued with his fight in the primary, and when he lost, he took it to the people again and ran as an Independent. He didn't switch parties; he took his moderate views into the center and left it up to all the state's voters, who sent him back to the Senate. I hardly see a parallel with Specter; he saw he couldn't win, but instead of running the race to the end and possibly considering taking the same route as Lieberman he jumped ship. Personally, I see that as a much more cowardly route than that taken by Lieberman.
After the announcement, Specter told the President, "I will be a loyal Democrat." That really shouldn't engender much confidence in either party. First, as a Republican, he supported legislation on several occasions to which his party was opposed. Now, however, as a Democrat, he is saying that he will not change his views and will in fact continue to oppose cloture on such issues as card check - a view opposite that of a majority of his new party mates. As one person commented today, why should the Democrats now trust Specter any more than the Republicans have in recent years?
Another question was raised by consultant Kevin Madden as a Twitter post this afternoon: with Specter's jump, what will this mean for Senators Snowe and Collins, who tend to be as moderate as him? Will they feel mounting pressure to change affiliation and cross the aisle? If so, what will it mean for their reelection chances in their own races in the next few years?
Over the next few days, despite ongoing conversations about Harry Reid drooling over the potential of a filibuster-proof majority, this story will start to wind down. However, the Minnesota race is drawing to a close (pending a state Supreme Court ruling), and the story will be revived at that point. I'm sure that Al Franken is doing his own drooling right now about the fact that he is this close to bringing Democrats to that magic number.