Specter: A mixed blessing


Arlen Specter was never much of a Republican. He won’t be much of a Democrat either.

His record in the Senate has always been quirkily centrist. He has voted for Republican presidents’ conservative Supreme Court nominees but still supported abortion rights. He was one of only three GOP senators who voted for President Obama’s $787-billion stimulus bill. He often exasperated other senators by offering his own idiosyncratic bills.

Conservatives dubbed him a RINO: Republican In Name Only. Now he has crossed the aisle to join the Democratic majority, but Specter acknowledged Tuesday that he’ll be something of a DINO. Asked whether he plans to attend meetings of the Democratic caucus, he looked momentarily stricken. “Give me a week to think about it,” he said.

Obama and the Democrats, to win Specter over, offered him an amazingly good deal. The president promised to support him in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary next year. (Presidents don’t normally intervene in primary contests -- at least, not so openly.) Gov. Ed Rendell, the most popular Democrat in Pennsylvania, promised to help too. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada allowed Specter to keep the 28 years of seniority he has amassed as a Republican -- meaning he’ll replace some unlucky Democrat of longer standing as chairman of a major committee.


What do the Democrats get in return? A 60th vote -- they hope. It takes 60 votes to move most legislation in the Senate. Until Tuesday, the Democrats had 58, including Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, another prickly maverick. Seat No. 59 belongs to Democratic comedian Al Franken -- if he can just get Minnesota’s Supreme Court to certify his victory. Arlen Specter will make 60.

That’s why the Democrats welcomed Specter with open arms. His defection not only made the Republican Party look bad, it boosted Obama’s chances of passing legislation on his agenda of healthcare, energy and education before the 2010 election.

But 60 seats can be a mixed blessing. With 60 seats, the Democrats will have no excuses, no one else to blame, any time they can’t hold their big caucus together. Their most independent, unpredictable members will enjoy massive power -- not just Specter but also Lieberman and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, another centrist.

And Specter has always been hard to please. He’ll still be the 60th vote on every issue, just as he was on the stimulus bill -- the one who always has a special request before he can say yes. Reid will sometimes wonder whether this was such a good deal.

At the same time, a 60-vote majority can turn into an invitation to abandon bipartisanship. Obama set out to be a post-partisan president, crafting bills that could attract Republican support, but the stimulus plan turned into an exercise in polarization. If healthcare legislation becomes a Democrats-only affair, that will be the end of Obama’s commitment to bringing along both sides of the aisle.

Specter’s defection was good news for Democrats mostly because it showed that the Republican Party isn’t through shrinking. The GOP, stung by its defeats in 2006 and 2008, hasn’t yet come up with a recovery plan. Part of the party thinks the answer is to become more conservative; radio host Rush Limbaugh, for example, hailed Specter’s departure as “good -- you’re weeding out people who aren’t really Republicans.” “Big tent” Republicans like Sen. John S. McCain subscribe to a more conventional approach, working on the theory that a more inclusive party stands a better chance of attracting voters.


That approach, after all, is how the Democrats won so many seats in 2006. Under Rahm Emanuel, now Obama’s chief of staff, they welcomed anyone who looked capable of winning an election, beliefs be hanged.

That’s the party Arlen Specter just joined: the Let’s Make a Deal Party. What it loses in coherence, it makes up in voting power.

And Specter was cheerfully open about the cynicism of his move. He changed parties, the senator said, after looking at the polls and realizing that he couldn’t win the Republican primary. (When was the last time you heard a politician admit that he let polls guide his decisions?) He made a brief reference to the increasing conservatism of the GOP. “As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy,” he said. But he also made clear this wasn’t just about philosophy; he would gladly have remained a Republican if he could keep his job that way.

But that’s how American politics, in all its non-ideological, market-driven glory, often works. As another great Republican, the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, said: “Sometimes a man just has to rise above principle.”