Arlen Specter's Switch

Longtime Republican Sen. Arlen Specter says he is switching to the Democratic party, a move he calls a 'painful decision.' Video by AP
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Post asked politicians, strategists and political observers for their first thoughts on Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to join the Democratic Party. Below are contributions from Newt Gingrich, Olympia Snowe, William Cohen, Lincoln Chafee, Kiki McLean, Tom Davis, Douglas Schoen, Ed Rogers, Jim Leach and Mary Beth Cahill.


Former Republican speaker of the House

Arlen Specter's decision to leave the Republican Party in name as he left it in spirit over the stimulus vote is further proof that high taxes, big spending and big government are unacceptable to Republican voters.

This switch is a function of personal survival and will make clearer the profound difference between the Democratic Party of big government, big bureaucracy, high taxes and big unions and the Republican Party of lower taxes, less bureaucracy and small business, with its emphasis on the work ethic, civil society and local control back home.

When congressional Republicans forgot that their party was the party of taxpayers and government reformers, they lost control in 2006. When they accepted the Bush big-spending plans of 2008, they further lost ground.

When Sen. Specter voted for a $787 billion big-spending bill no elected official had even read, he widened the gap between himself and the tax-paying small-government conservatives who are the base of the Republican Party.

It is clear that Specter concluded he would lose the coming Republican primary, and he admits in his statement on switching parties that the vote for the $787 billion spending bill was the final straw.

This defection will make the 2010 and 2012 elections an even clearer choice of two directions for America.


Republican senator from Maine

The departure of my good friend Sen. Arlen Specter from the Republican Party is a tremendous loss. It illustrates not just the state of Pennsylvania politics but a larger problem within our party. With Sen. Jim Jeffords's decision to become an independent in 2001, followed by defeats in 2006 (when I last ran) and additional losses in 2008 -- elections that claimed 51 Republicans in the House and 13 in the Senate -- we are headed toward having one of the smallest political tents in generations. We simply cannot expand a majority by shrinking the ideological confines of our party.

Yesterday's announcement must compel serious soul-searching within the GOP. I have served in Congress for three decades, and I've always said there must be Republicans from across the political spectrum. I understand that there are places where being conservative reflects a particular constituency or geographic region. But just as Republicans cannot build a majority without conservatives, we cannot prevail in the future without moderates.

The bottom line is that we win when we solve problems and demonstrate that we are the ones who can govern most effectively -- and when we adhere to fundamental Republican tenets of providing opportunity and thoughtful solutions. We are successful when we are attuned to the concerns and desires of hardworking Americans, and apply common-sense approaches relevant in their daily lives.

Ultimately, we should, as President Reagan urged, "emphasize the things that unite us and make these the only 'litmus tests' of what constitutes a Republican: our belief in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty." We must heed these words to rebuild our party.


Republican senator (Maine) from 1979 to 1997; secretary of defense from 1997 to 2001; chairman and CEO of the Cohen Group

In the United States Senate, Arlen Specter and I were both part of something called the Wednesday Group -- a regular meeting of moderate Republicans who gathered once a week over lunch and to discuss policy and plot strategy. When I first arrived in 1979, there were about 20 to 25 Senators at the lunch each week. By the time I left the Senate in 1997, there were about five regular attendees. So it does not surprise me to see that our old group has dwindled by one more member.

Arlen Specter's decision to leave the Republican Party was both practical and ideological. Practically speaking, he saw that the conservative base of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania was less and less willing to accept his brand of moderate Republicanism. Ideologically, he probably felt less and less comfortable within the ranks of his own increasingly conservative party -- and more at home with the Democrats. So he decided, likely with regret, that the time had come to switch sides, and he has enhanced his chances for reelection by doing so.

At this moment, many Americans are struggling with the same decision that Arlen just confronted. Polls show that Republican self-identification has dropped significantly -- though, unlike Arlen, many of those leaving the Republican Party have not yet made the jump to the Democratic side. The ranks of independents is growing -- which means that while many Americans are frustrated with the GOP's failure to practice fiscal discipline and its intolerance of social moderation, they are not quite willing to sign up with the other side. They are still apprehensive about the expansion of federal spending, the nationalization of banks and growing intrusion of government in so many aspects of our lives. These voters can still be reached by the GOP -- if Republicans choose to say more than "no" and reach out to them and show them a path home. America is still a center-right country. But to win elections, Republicans must be not just the party of the right, but the party of the center as well.


Republican senator (R.I.) from 1999 to 2006; fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies

In 1964, at the Republican National Convention, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, I was an 11-year-old watching the full-throated booing of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller by the Goldwater delegates. It was memorable in its fervency. No matter that Goldwater would carry only six states later that year in a historic Democratic landslide; the message was one of ideological purity. Now, 45 years later, we are watching the same celebration of ideological purity at the cost of winning elections.

After the '06 Senate losses -- of myself in Rhode Island, Mike DeWine in Ohio, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Conrad Burns in Montana, George Allen in Virginia and Jim Talent in Missouri -- put the Republicans in the minority, there was no introspection or strategy change to stop the hemorrhaging. Indeed, in '08, it was another debacle: Sununu in New Hampshire, Smith in Oregon, Dole in North Carolina, Stevens in Alaska, Coleman in Minnesota.

After the election, it was reported that some Republicans were happy to be free of the "wobbly-kneed Republicans." Happy in their 41-seat minority! I assume that Sen. Specter told the right-wing fundraising juggernaut, "If you fund my primary opponent, I'll switch parties." The likely response? "Don't let the door hit you on the way out."

That attitude signals the demise of the Republican Party as a viable national party. The ramifications of the collapse are especially acute in states such as Rhode Island, where presently there is no alternative to the Democratic Party. Everybody here agrees that that is not good for a healthy democracy.


Democratic strategist; principal with the Dewey Square Group

Recognizing the good and bad news in this is important for both parties. Equally important is President Obama's recognition that he takes 60 votes for granted at his own political peril.

With super majorities come super challenges. Arlen Specter's new caucus address and the expected seating of Al Franken brings more hype than promises. The challenge of reaching 60 votes to prevent filibusters of significant legislation is changing; the strategic function goes from peeling off one of theirs to holding one of ours.

No doubt about it: Specter's decision to change parties is a point for Democrats. An unexpected boon to Democrats might be the absence of GOP attack against him. His Republican Senate colleagues, from his Northeastern neighbor Olympia Snowe to the Southern conservative Lindsey Graham, have admitted the divided state of their party.

The most startling observation might be Specter's own: Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly voted for Obama while the Republican base was helpless in the Democrat's shadow.

Some might assume that reaching the magic number of 60 frees the president and Senate leaders from the fear of filibuster and the need to marshal their caucus. Just the opposite may be true. A broader list of interests, concerns and even personal political agendas will make finding consensus and commitment more challenging.


Former U.S. representative from Virginia; president of the Republican Main Street Partnership

"Politics is cyclical" is a mantra many Republicans repeat to explain how in two short years we lost control of the House, the Senate and the White House. Yes, politics is cyclical. But the combination of Arlen Specter's exit, a popular Democratic president and dismal poll numbers for the Republican Party indicates that this cycle may be a long, painful one for the GOP.

I chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998 through 2002. I have seen our party in much better shape. While today's outlook may appear dreary, I have also seen our party in much worse shape. Political parties eventually rebound from devastating losses; the question is how long it takes.

The GOP has lost the same 18 states in five straight presidential elections, and John McCain wasn't within 10 points in any of them. Those states and the District of Columbia account for 248 electoral votes -- not a bad start to the 270 needed to win the White House. With the loss of Specter, the Senate delegations from those states are 34 Democrats and 2 Republicans.

To end this cycle Republicans must do two things. First, we must focus on the broad principles that made our party strong: limited government, free trade, free markets and a strong defense. That's it. Believe anything else you want, but don't make those beliefs a litmus test for admission. Litmus tests are fine for a private club, but they're no formula for a successful political coalition.

Second, we need to recognize regional differences: A Republican in the Northeast is not going to be the clone of a Republican in the South. We need to build our party by ending the self-destructive infighting that drives out centrists such as Arlen Specter.


Democratic pollster and author

This is a very serious blow to the GOP, which is increasingly in danger of becoming a regionally based party whose core supporters are principally Southern whites and fundamentalist Christians. For Democrats, Specter's switch provides a historic opportunity to use what is likely to become a filibuster-proof majority of 60 to build what could become a near-impregnable majority -- as long as they don't overreach as the Republicans did in the mid- to late 1990s. That being said, we are now almost certain to get some form of universal health care without needing to use the budget "reconciliation" process. And Arlen Specter will almost certainly campaign the same way Joe Lieberman did last year, as an independent who puts principle ahead of party -- with the same result.


White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

Notice to Republicans: Arlen Specter changing parties is good for the Democrats and President Obama and bad for us. If you think otherwise, put down the Ann Coulter book and go get some fresh air. There's always a delusional element within the GOP that thinks if we lose badly enough the Democrats will gain so much power they will implement all their crazy plans, the people will revolt and purest Republicans will then be swept back into power. Even if this were true, it doesn't take into account the damage done while our opponents are in control.

Specter didn't want to be a Democrat. The party deteriorated to the point where there was no place for him. Who knows if he will be elected as a Democrat in November 2010? The damage will be done right away, when he votes with the majority. This is the latest in a series of wake-up calls the GOP should have gotten starting with the 2006 elections.

Despite this, I believe we have not lost the battle for ideas, because the Democrats don't have any. We have lost our majorities in Congress through corruption and mismanagement. Obama's victory in 2008 was an Obama phenomenon, not a Democratic Party phenomenon. What they haven't been able to do through legitimate party building, we've handed them on a silver platter. We need to stop.


Former Republican congressman from Iowa; visiting professor at Princeton University

The Republican Party was founded as a party of individual rights and individual initiative. It led the fight to end slavery, give women the right to vote, expand national parks and break up corporate monopolies. Today the party is more movement-oriented: pro-life, pro-gun, pro-tax cut and anti-U.N., with recent pandering in Texas and Alaska to irrational secessionist anger. Arlen Specter didn't fit.

He's not the only one. Many traditional Republicans respect movement values but do not support efforts to impose them on society as a whole. They are instinctively pragmatic rather than ideological, tolerant rather than supportive of state regulation of values. They can vote for Democrats when given compelling choices, but for a variety of reasons they aren't comfortable with either modern conservatism or old-fashioned liberalism.

An increasing number of Americans simply don't feel at home with either political party. It is not that there is a groundswell for a third party; it is that they want people in public life to calm down, to work together, to put the national interest above politics and self.

Arlen Specter's switch is seminal, in this sense, not because of the effect it may have on arcane Senate rules but as a reflection of American discontent with dysfunctional congressional politics.

The challenge for Republicans is thus not to obsess about the loss of one seat in one state at one moment in time but to reflect about the progressive values that made the party great. The question cannot be ducked: Is an uplifting correction overdue?


Manager of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign; former chief of staff to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

One of the most remarkable occurrences of this 2008 election cycle is the decline in self-identified Republicans in state after state. If the voters are leaving the party, can the politicians be far behind? Sen. Arlen Specter knew he faced a closed primary with an increasingly hard-core right-wing electorate, and he decided to take his chances elsewhere.

Yet I'm not sure how easy the transition of the notoriously prickly Specter will be into the Democratic caucus, and how his seniority will be dealt with. But those are tomorrow's problems; today, his defection has dealt a stinging blow to his erstwhile benchmates that they'll be dealing with for weeks. A big score for the Democrats, especially for Vice President Biden.

For more Post opinions on Specter, read E.J. Dionne's "For Specter, Full Circle," Jonathan Capehart's "The GOP's Identity Crisis," William Kristol's "Good News for Republicans" and the Post editorial "Aisle Crosser."

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