Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter’s Big Switch

Today, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter announced that he is abandoning the Republican Party and becoming a Democrat. It seems that in the aftermath, Democrats are elated and Republicans are forlorn. But on a practical level, the shift doesn’t change as much as it may seem to.

The foremost “hurray” argument is that now the Democrats, with Lieberman and Sanders, have 59 votes in the Senate, one shy of the three-fifths needed to break a Republican filibuster. And lo and behold, Al Franken is on his way (sometime after June 1…or more likely much later) to becoming the 60th Senate Democrat. But let’s consider the reality of the situation.

Ted Kennedy is sadly not in good health, and hasn’t shown up for many votes recently. He might be able to muster the strength to appear in Washington for a key healthcare cloture vote here or there, but odds are he won’t be around very much. That knocks the number of Democrats back down to 59 (as long as we’re counting Franken). A Snowe or Collins vote would push the Democrats over the marker, but that was a vote that could have been provided by Republican Specter anyway.

More importantly, Specter has been a Republican since 1966, albeit a moderate one. He has been willing to defy his party in many circumstances over the past 40 years, and there’s no reason he would suddenly agree with Democrats on all the issues now that he’s one of them. I predict that his voting record will not change much from what it has been. Granted, he might vote with the Democrats more often than he used to in order to gain some favor within the party, but on the big issues, the veteran Senator most likely won’t budge very much.

After all, Pennsylvanians on average are fairly moderate. He’s not switching parties in order to attract the progressive Pennsylvania base. He’s switching parties to avoid likely defeat at the hands of extreme conservative Pat Toomey, who recently polled ahead of Specter in the Senate primary by 21 percent. As Pennsylvania demographics have shifted toward the Democratic Party in recent years, the Republican Party there has accordingly become more conservative (as it has lost many moderates to the other side of the aisle). Because the Democrats don’t have an Ed Rendell or other widely popular candidate in the race, Specter will likely win the Democratic primary and cruise on to reelection.

For progressive Democrats, this is probably a bad thing. Had Specter remained a Republican, Toomey would probably have defeated him in the primary, then lost the general to the Democratic nominee, who would likely have been more liberal than Specter, who is now by far the most conservative Democrat in the Senate (we’ll see how he compares to Ben Nelson (D-NE) once he starts voting as a Democrat).

So for the next year and a half, Democrats might win some battles that they may otherwise not have won. But come 2011, there will still be a conservative Pennsylvania Democrat in the Senate, as opposed to a more progressive one. With the moderate Democrats wielding a great deal of power these days, it’s going to be hard for the progressives in the Senate to pass sweeping progressive legislation without winning some more seats (even wresting them from their own party members) in 2010.

Photos: Arlen Specter (New York Times), Pat Toomey (Huffington Post)