The cause of Arlen Specter’s dramatic defection to the Democratic Party was a particular political problem: As the six-term senator from Pennsylvania admitted, he was in danger of losing next year’s Republican primary. But the effect of Specter’s switch has national significance, and not only because it has Senate Democrats dreaming of a filibuster-proof majority. (And it might be just a dream: Specter says he “will not be an automatic 60th vote” to end a Republican filibuster.)
With due respect to Specter, one of the Senate’s brainiest members, this is not about him. In partly reinventing himself at the age of 79, he has done more than replace the “R” after his name with a “D.” He also has changed his former party by further depleting the ranks of moderate Republicans in the Senate.
That once-formidable bloc now consists of Maine’s two senators, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, who joined Specter in voting for President Obama’s stimulus plan. Other Republican senators depart from conservative orthodoxy on occasion. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made common cause with Democrats on immigration reform. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) has joined with Democratic colleagues in pressing for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. But, for the most part, “Republican senator” has become a synonym for “conservative senator.”
More than four decades ago, another Pennsylvanian, Hugh Scott, was one of several Republican senators, including California’s Thomas Kuchel, who provided vocal support for civil rights legislation. Like Specter, those senators sometimes alienated party conservatives but were effective in working with, and sometimes moderating the impulses of, Democratic colleagues. Many of them represented the Northeast, a region that is now as reliably blue as the Deep South is now red.
Lamenting the decline of the moderate Republican may seem like an exercise in nostalgia. But a diversity of opinion in both parties in Congress is good for the nation (because it encourages bipartisanship) and for the parties themselves (as Democrats recently have recognized in recruiting candidates who fail some liberal litmus tests but connect with their constituents). Like the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, moderate Republicans -- including Specter -- often have nudged their party toward the center.
Specter may have been impelled to switch sides by self-interest, but there is truth in his parting words: “Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right.” As they struggle to rebuild after last year’s election debacle, Republican leaders should ponder that message.