Specter to let Specter be Specter

Arlen Specter, having concluded that he likely will not win the Republican primary next year, will switch to the Democratic party. As he explained:

It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.

Specter added:

My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats than I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords’ switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.

We can probably take Specter at his word that he will not change his position on “card checks.” I think it’s also true that he will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. But it seems quite likely that Specter will vote with the Dems on important issues more often than he would have done absent his “switch in time.”

In the short-term (i.e., until 2011 when a different liberal would likely have taken the seat) this looks like a coup for the Democrats.

UPDATE: The Examiner is already on top of this story. Michael Barone reminds us that Specter started out as a Democrat and switched parties to run for District Attorney of Philadelphia County in 1965. Barone argues that Specter’s switch this time “shows the folly, from the point of view of expanding Republican numbers in Congress, of Pat Toomey’s candidacy.”

Meanwhile, Timothy Carney notes that Specter’s swich came after the release of a poll showing Toomey more than 20 percentage points ahead in the primary. It also follows a brief conversation in which Sen. Jim DeMint told Specter he would support Toomey.

DeMint says he would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than. . .that don’t have a set of beliefs.” Both prospects sound gruesome to me and we may be getting very close to the first of the two.

JOHN adds: Whatever you think of Specter, it’s painful to give the Democrats this opportunity to crow. I caught a few minutes of CNN over the lunch hour; their anchor appeared to be impersonating the woman in the restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally.

Seriously, though, it seems to me that Specter’s switch highlights a non-partisan institutional issue that is more fundamental than the one-vote swing in the Senate. What is striking to me is Specter’s unwillingness to give up power. At age 79–he’ll be at least 80 by November 2010–he would rather change parties than retire. We have seen this determination to remain in office, no matter what, time after time. It seems that for many politicians, retirement is like death–they cling to office the way the rest of us cling to life.

Does anyone doubt that if Specter had remained a Democrat, but with a centrist voting record in the Senate, and polls showed him trailing by 20 points in the Democratic primary and scoring better with Republicans in Pennsylvania than Democrats, he would have jumped to the Republican Party with equal alacrity?

One of the basic problems with our democracy is that once we elect someone to office, it often takes a jackhammer to get him out. I’ve never been a big advocate of term limits, but the spectacle of Specter desperately maneuvering for one last term in office reminds me why so many believe they are necessary.

UPDATE: Michael Barone’s view of Specter’s switch is similar to ours: it was all about his re-election prospects. He adds these cautionary words, which I think are right:

On conservative Web sites, the reaction seems to be “good riddance.” I think this is wrongheaded, for reasons specific to Specter and more generally. …

The Club for Growth, which Toomey used to head and which supported him in 2004 and again this year, has made a practice of targeting moderate Republicans in primaries even at the risk of losing the seat in the general election. This arguably made good sense when Republicans had majorities in Congress and needed reliable votes to pass major legislation. It makes much less sense now that Republicans have beleaguered minorities in Congress and are trying to stop things.

Responses