It’s an important point that Arlen is representing a state that, three years ago, was represented by two Republicans, one of whom was Rick Santorum. Specter’s evolution from centrist Republican to centrist Democrat is, if anything, an accurate reflection of the political make-up of the state. This isn’t New York or Massachusetts we’re talking about; it’s Pennsylvania. For every Philadelphia voter there’s plenty of rural, even suburban voices who don’t deserve to be marginalized entirely, regardless of how progressives in urban areas think about them. At the same time, 200,000 Pennsylvanians changed their registration from Democrat to Republican in 2008. They aren’t liberals; why can’t Arlen be one of them?
It’s disingenuous to suggest that Specter’s ‘flexibility’ on certain issues, usually ones that are red meat for his party that he doesn’t personally care about, or rhetorical crap that means little outside the campaign season, means he’s a valueless conman. Don’t we always bemoan the primary system that marginalizes moderates in both parties and polarizes the debate in this country? Specter made a great point today when he pointed to Chafee, Wilson, and others who were moderates forced out by right-wing ideologues. He could have just as easily mentioned Lieberman, who was able to overcome the problem thanks to the lack of a sore loser law in Connecticut. His dashes to the right are because he wanted to remain a senator. There’s nothing wrong with people having a centrist viewpoint and wanting to remain a senator. There is something wrong with a system that doesn’t let centrist incumbents remain centrist come primary time. Specter’s lucky that he has enough popularity in Pennsylvania to be able to make the switch and land on his feet. Young centrists should be so lucky.
Adding centrist Democrats to the party ranks, especially at the expense of centrist Republicans, can only be good for party building. Would you rather a caucus meeting be a war room, where like-minded folks all tried to figure out the best way to stick it to the enemy, or would you rather our elected officials be forced to have real debates about the best way to enact the agenda they believe is best for the country? The United States is definitely not a center-right country, but, if anything, it’s center-left, and that’s what we have now.
Pennsylvania’s Class III Senate seat is a sure win for Democrats in 2010, and the best argument against welcoming Specter into the caucus with open arms now is that the party could find a much more suitable candidate. That’s almost certainly true, and would make Pennsylvania a reliable source of two progressive votes for the first time ever, and, assuming demographic trends hold, it would remain so for the foreseeable future. Still, what’s wrong with a gradual transition? Especially a transition like this. It shows that the Republican party, after becoming a clear minority party, are still hemorrhaging members – and moderate members at that! The Democrats are going to be in power for a long time as long as this trend keeps up, and remaining attractive to moderates will put more D’s in the seats. To complain about a switch like this is not in the long-term interest of the party.
If Congress hadn’t grown so acrimonious lately, cloture wouldn’t be so important, the Senate would look outrageously liberal, and Specter’s defection would be meaningless. As it stands, Specter’s switch is a protest against the very system that makes 60 senators a requirement to pass an agenda. Specter will play ball with the Democrats’ agenda because he knows if they abandon him, his career is over. But let’s hope he uses his voice in the caucus room to build a stronger, more developed party that will retain power and relevance for a very, very long time.