I’m going to start out by saying something that will shock a few people, I suppose: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Republican Party.
Not only that, but I doubt I ever will be. I doubt I will join any political party again, although I was a card-carrying Democrat for many years. I consider myself an Independent.
So perhaps I’m not the best person to be analyzing what Arlen Specter’s defection means for Republicans. Then again, perhaps I’m more objective than those more ideologically driven.
One thing that’s for certain: Specter’s “ratting” (as Churchill and the Brits would call it) was the most practical sort of decision: Arlen Specter did what was best for Arlen Specter. In doing so, he probably acted no worse than so many other self-centered narcissistic politicians (I know; that’s somewhat redundant)—and at least he’s honest about his non-principled motivations.
Specter had already been angering the vast majority of his fellow Republicans for years, and his support of the stimulus bill was the last straw. With “friends” like this, the Congressional Republicans must have thought, who needs enemies? In what way, exactly, could Specter be considered a Republican any more? And, looking at his record, I don’t see how.
And so it became clear that Specter would be challenged in the primaries by his own party, and would go down despite the fact that he is popular enough state-wide to win re-election. If Specter thought the best thing for Pennsylvania (and himself) would be another term of Specter in the Senate, then his path was clear: he had to become a Democrat or face defeat.
Just what do the Republicans lose by his move? The commentary in the press and blogs indicate that it’s the magical 40 votes that could have stopped some of the ultra-liberal Obama agenda. But was Specter ever one of those votes? I’m not familiar with his entire voting record, but I don’t see any indication that he was.
Yes, if he is now caucusing with the Democrats, the pressure will be on for him to become even more aligned with them. But wasn’t he already aligned with them on nearly every vote that mattered?
I’m more interested in the general question of how big a tent the Republican Party should be, and what it actually stands for. As I’ve written before, no party in America can win without playing to the middle. Those who are looking for ideological purity (such as Jim Demint, for example, who said “”I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs”) may find themselves left with just that: purity and unity of mind in a powerless party.
But if you forsake all principles, what’s the point of power, anyway? If Republicans turn into Democrats Lite, why bother to run for office? That makes sense, too—at least, to those who are motivated by some sort of coherent ideology rather than the self-serving need to have the perks of Senate membership.
One of the problems for Republicans and conservatives is that the middle in the US has shifted to the Left in recent years—or has it? Polls are confusing, but this one, published only a few months before the 2008 election, seems to belie the leftward trend the country has taken since:
Overall, Americans are against the core principle behind Barack Obama’s domestic economic policy – income redistribution – by an astounding 84% to 13%. Republicans oppose it 90%-9%, Independents oppose it 85% to 13%, and even Democrats oppose it 77% to 19%…
A separate question finds Americans more likely to believe government is doing too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses (50%) as opposed to saying government should do more to solve the country’s problems (43%). This broad question is not directed specifically at the economy, but reinforces the general idea that many Americans are leery of too much direct government intervention in fixing the country’s problems.
So how is it that a Congress and an administration dedicated to doing just those things is gaining power and influence rather than losing it? Some of it no doubt is the fear engendered by the economic crisis, which occurred some months after the poll. But the idea remains that many Americans would vote for “true conservatives” and “real Republicans” if we only had some principled and personable ones around who could clearly articulate the message.
And perhaps it’s even true that this would work. Ronald Reagan was all those things, and he brought many people under the Republican tent and kept them there for a long time.
But short of an unlikely Reagan reincarnation, Republicans seem to be condemned to wander in the desert for a while. Americans don’t seem to be hearing what they have to say right now, and I don’t think it’s just due to lack of charisma. Nor do I think the Specter defection is all that meaningful: he was honestly no Republican at all, not even a moderate one.
What is most important for the Republican Party is to decide what its core message will be, and how to show the American people they mean business about it. The majority of voters may remain amenable to this message if it resonates with conviction as it did when Reagan stated it [emphasis mine]:
We should emphasize the things that unite us and make these the only “litmus test” of what constitutes a Republican: our belief in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty. As to the other issues that draw on the deep springs of morality and emotion, let us decide that we can disagree among ourselves as Republicans and tolerate the disagreement.
The principles I highlighted in bold are the ones that draw me to vote Republican. Just as Reagan says, they are the ideological and policy issues the party ought to articulate and emphasize if it wants the best hope of implementing any of its agenda—and of blocking the ultra-liberal one currently in ascendence.
[NOTE: It is interesting that the Reagan quote was offered in an op-ed in today's NY Times by Olympia Snowe, RINO of Maine. Republicans must decide where to draw the line, and it's not always easy. Snowe, for example, voted for Obama's stimulus bill (as, of course, did Specter)---hardly an example of the restraint of government spending that Reagan mentioned and that she quotes in the Times.
But Maine may now be such a blue state that targeting the very popular Snowe in a primary, as Republicans did Specter, is probably not the answer. Therein lies the dilemma. In the 2008 Presidential race, Obama took Pennsylvania 55% to 44%, but in Maine the margin of victory was a whopping 58% to 41%. And that was in an election in which Snowe nevertheless won by a 61 to 38 margin, a bona fide landslide.
This is the sobering reality of what Republicans face today---although that doesn't mean the situation will be the same in 2010; there are always black swans and wild cards.
But they can't be counted on to happen, or to help Republicans if they do. Meanwhile, Republicans must be realistic and focused if they wish things to improve. That means deciding what principles are truly important to them, and then framing them in a coherent and appealing manner.]