Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter of Defection

The Republican political firmament, already roiled enough by November’s election, has gone into further convulsions after Pennsylvania’s Senator Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democratic Party this morning.

Republicans and conservatives will likely want to argue that Specter's jump is inconsequential – that Specter was so Lefty he was mostly a Democrat anyway, and that Senator Specter’s desertion just ratifies what everybody already knew. Don’t believe the happy talk this is staggering news.

First, the obvious: Assuming, as I think likely, that Al Franken finally prevails in Minnesota, the Democrats now have their 60-seat filibuster-proof majority. In actuality, they will usually have a few more than 60 seats because Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (both Maine Republicans, at least for now), vote with Democrats on many issues.

Specter can be expected to be more liberal now that he has not got to worry about facing Republican primary challengers and keeping the Republican caucus quiet. In fact, even more than wanting to align ideology and party, Specter’s defection seems to have been occasioned by his possible loss in the Republican primary next year to Pat Toomey.
The national Republican party would have tried to help Specter retain his seat, as much as it could, but a strong primary challenge would have cost Specter a bundle, even assuming he prevailed. Now, Specter can run for re-election in a state trending strongly Democratic (the reason the national Republicans supported him) -- with the strong backing of the locally popular President of the United States.

Moreover, as a member of the majority party, and a convert whom the Democrats will want to bend over backwards to welcome, Specter will actually have legislative relevance. As a raw political calculation, Specter’s defection is quite rational, and for the moment has little downside, either to him, or to Democrats.

However, the complete Democratic dominance of the Senate carries considerable long term risk. The congressional Democrats, more than ever, have complete ownership of the consequences of Obama’s – and their own – decision making. They now have a big enough majority to have legislation pretty much their own way, and their backers will demand that they make use of this power: on spending, on foreign policy, and on, say, the question of CIA policies towards prisoners under Bush.
The Democrats will not be able to rely on Republican votes for cover, because they now have the naked power to steamroll, and all the players know it. If the Republicans pick up their toys and leave, and Obama’s plans do not work out. . .the blame will be all on Democrats, who have a long way to fall.

If the election of 2008 were not evidence enough, the loss of Specter is further proof of the utter disappearance of Republican support in the northeast. The national Republican Party (that is, the Beltway party, exemplified by new RNC Chairman Michael Steele (from Maryland) – sees this as catastrophic. Viewed another way, the Republican Party is now largely confined to the South and to the flyover plains West. The coasts and northeast are secure Democratic territory. The Beltway Republicans fear that the party will never be competitive again nationally if it cannot attract northeastern voters.

Perhaps so, but Republicans in the southern and western heartlands of the Party (who embraced Sarah Palin over the doubts of the Party establishment) just might not care. The cleavages between the parties and the regions have not developed by accident, or for trivial reasons. The two parties – and the regions of this country -- have genuine differences of opinion on almost every subject of interest, across the board.
The voters have been offered clearly different approaches to the questions facing the country, and have regionally made diametrically opposite choices. The euphoria of the mostly coastal opinion makers over Obama obscures a regional divide in this country as stark as anything seen since the Civil War. The cooler heads among Republicans may want to tack a little to the Left, and try to recover some urban and northeastern voters. The chiefs might well want to lead in this direction -- but I question whether their Indians are going to be willing to follow.
No matter where one sits politically, the ride ahead looks to be bumpy. The staggering debts our children are facing are quite sufficient reason to view the future with a good deal of apprehension. What will happen when the bills come due? I think we are all going to shortly find out whether the coasts and the rest have anything constructive left to say to each other.

3 comments:

The Traveling Salesman said...

El-Great one, it is true and sad that we have come to this. The only question now is "how bad must things become before the general public sees the error of their ways by electing a majority in all three legislative branches?"

Saving my money, Jack, and ammo....

Canine said...

Good one, El Jefe. Specter is representative of many American politicians - opportunistic, disloyal to his constituency, lacking in personal integrity.

I concur on the 60/40 problem, but I'm still hoping that a few of those newly elected Democrats ended up being moderates or independent conservatives. Probably wishful thinking...

Texas Gator Girl said...

well said, El Jefe! I think the coasts should take the "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" approach- BUT, we know that's not about to happen!!