It must have been a nice 100-day anniversary present for President Obama to have Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania defect to the Democratic Party. Provided that the Franken / Coleman court case in Minnesota is resolved in favour of the former Air America host, the Democrats will have gained an absolute majority in the Senate. Filibusters will become much more difficult to sustain, bills can’t then be talked to death: the way thus becomes clear for President Obama to get most of his ambitious agenda passed.
Senator Specter comes with an interesting pedigree; he’s long been what the Rush Limbaugh wing of the Republican Party call a “RINO”, i.e. a Republican In Name Only. The truth, as ever, is a bit more complex than talk radio would have one believe. While Specter is broadly in favour of gay rights and against banning abortion, he also voted to approve Samuel Alito’s appointment to the Supreme Court, for example. He approved of the President Obama’s recent stimulus package but also claims to be part of the Reagan Big Tent. Overall, he was definitely more leftish than most Republicans, but in his new guise, he’s more to the right than most Democrats; this may create some more spirited debates within the Democratic caucus, which is probably a good thing. I speak only for myself, but when there is a room full of people who agree on everything, that’s the moment I become nervous.
At the same time, I can’t help but dislike this development. It’s not because I’m a registered Independent in the United States and I intend to stay that way. There is something altogether sleazy about the entire setup; it feels like a Faustian bargain, as if there is some unseen Mephistopheles chuckling in the background at the hell that lurks around the corner. My foreboding is mostly due to the reasons Specter has given for making the change and the portents this event implies.
There’s no doubt that Specter would have a tough time getting re-elected had he remained with the GOP, though he remains sufficiently popular in his home state that re-election is not implausible. The trouble lay in the primaries: he barely held off a challenge from Congressman Pat Toomey during the last cycle; the polls I’ve seen suggest that Toomey had over a 20 point lead in the latest Pennsylvania Republican contest. Specter confirmed this impression by saying at a press conference, “I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.” He also promised that he wouldn’t be an automatic Democrat vote: “My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans,” he said.
Well, all right. But the disquiet in my soul comes from the following thought: “If he wants to be genuinely independent as he says he does, why didn’t he follow the precedent laid down for him by Senator James Jeffords of Vermont?” Jeffords too found the going rather tough within the Republican Party, and in 2001 he became an Independent. This gave him maximum flexibility in terms of standing for the causes in which he believed, and the ability to represent the people of Vermont rather than a political clique. Furthermore, it is by no means pre-determined that the Independent label is destined to lose elections: both Vermont and Connecticut retain Independent Senators (Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman, respectively). Joining a party always involves a tricky balancing act between what the constituents want and what the national leadership requires. If freedom of conscience is his concern, then he did something rather peculiar: he just swapped one tightrope act for another. Given that he is experienced enough to know this, I suggest that he’s only made the change in order to retain his seat, not defend his principles. He may rationalise it in any way he likes, but nothing can disguise this desperation sufficiently to make it appear any differently.
The Democrats have made it easy for him: President Obama has promised to campaign for Specter, and other Democrats such as Governor Ed Rendell allegedly will help him raise money. Under these circumstances, I hate to say it, it looks like a bribe. But the Democrats may not get what they bargained for: I don’t believe I am alone in interpreting this as a business deal rather than a genuine adherence to deeply-held principles or beliefs. I am certain, in fact, that the people of Pennsylvania are paying attention, and probably many of them don’t like what they see.
Additionally, this “deal” gives the Republicans all the material they need for their campaign advertisements; Rush Limbaugh is no doubt sharpening his rhetorical knives as I write this. Lurid soundbites about “Sell Out Specter” and “Benedict Specter” will no doubt be making their way onto television and the internet shortly. It’s worth remembering also that there are still enough wealthy Republicans out there who are willing to raise money for a “revenge” campaign. I have no doubt that Toomey’s war chest, regardless of what the President does, will be more than sufficient to match Specter’s.
Also, and this is perhaps most important, the bargain makes President Obama’s promises about a change of tone in Washington sound just a bit more hollow. We are supposed to be in an age of renewed idealism and optimism, not surrendering to warped ethics of the smoke-filled backroom. Yet, here we are.
Finally, it’s rare that defectors “work out”: this has certainly proven to be the case in Britain. After the Tory massacre of 1997, a number of Conservative MPs “crossed the floor” to join the Labour Party: the one that reminds me of Specter most is Shaun Woodward. Mr. Woodward is one of those standard-issue characters in British politics who was almost born to be a Tory politician: he went to Bristol Grammar School and Cambridge University, and after sufficient time, was “given” the safe seat of Witney in 1997. This constituency previously belonged to the equally well-heeled Douglas Hurd. However, Mr. Woodward changed parties in 1999, and was imposed on an less-than-willing constituency, St. Helens South, with which he had no personal connection. He’s gone on to become a confidant of Gordon Brown, but this access is a devalued commodity these days. Furthermore, by abandoning Witney, he left it open at the 2001 election to be taken up by David Cameron, the man who is likely to deprive Gordon Brown (and by extension Mr. Woodward) of office. This turn of events goes to prove the old saying that the law of unintended consquences is the one that is always passed.
What’s done is done, however, and I doubt anyone within the Democratic Party was going to argue with the President once he approved of this deal. For his part, President Obama has said that he’s “thrilled” that Specter has changed sides. Whether that passion has cause to wax or (more likely) to wane, remains to be seen.