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.
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.
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.