Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Specter conumdrum

The political world was rocked today with the news that Arlen Specter, U.S. Senator representing Pennsylvania, had decided to switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party, possibly giving the Democrats a filibuster-proof margin. Most people probably believe that he did so to save his political hide because he had virtually no chance of being re-elected as a Republican or even an independent.

That may be true, but here's the real reason: His power base has shifted.

Although Pennsylvania has a reputation as a "swing state," in fact its voting habits tend to be quite static, with Philly and Pittsburgh (and Pittsburgh's inner-ring suburbs) staunchly Democratic/liberal and much of the rest of the state heavily Republican/conservative; that being the case, whoever won southeastern Pennsylvania, the only true swing region, would win a tight statewide race. Specter, a former district attorney in Philadelphia, was and still is very, very popular in that part of the state; however, the suburbs around that city, generally Republican when he was first elected 30 years ago, nevertheless always leaned ideologically more liberal and began during the Clinton years to trend Democratic.

Specter had to notice this. Since that region of the state has seen an marked increase in Democratic registration and because of the state's closed primary system, many of his former supporters simply could not vote for him in next year's primary election unless he switched. And with former GOP congressman Pat Toomey and former gubernatorial candidate Peg Luksik, both staunch conservatives popular with that wing of the party, already seeking the Republican nomination, Specter's GOP goose was certainly cooked.

Curiously, however, that represents a major-league problem for the Republicans, national as well as state. Because the electorate has seen an upswing in Democratic registration -- due largely to disgust with unyielding conservative ideology -- Republican candidates face serious obstacles in winning elections anywhere outside the South. Trouble is, the party is generally oblivious to the reality that a lot of people hate what they stand for.

Which, to be truthful, is establishing the conservatives, who dominate the GOP, as a permanent semi-aristocracy in it only for the power but not the responsibility of running the government properly.

But there's also a bit of hypocrisy in Republicans' chastising of Specter for switching parties -- after all, more than a few Democrats, most notably in the South, became Republicans primarily because of Ronald Reagan (or perhaps more accurately, his supporters in their respective electorates).

Bottom line, as things stand now Arlen Specter is the odds-on favorite to retain his seat because if the two Republicans now in the race refuse to moderate their rhetoric -- and I have no reason to believe they will -- the winner will be clobbered next November. Besides, Specter has plenty of cash on hand to fund a campaign, certainly enough to dwarf the war chest of any Democrat who might consider running against him. The Republican Party would do well to understand that politics is the art of compromise; if they don't they'll continue to be on the outside looking in. Specter switched parties because he understood that.

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