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Aisle Crosser
Arlen Specter's switch reflects a troubling polarization in politics.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-turned-D-Pa.) was refreshingly honest yesterday about his motivation for turning his back on a Republican Party that has sheltered him during his 29 years in the Senate. He wants to win reelection next year; his prospects in a Republican primary are "bleak"; so he won't run as a Republican.

From the standpoint of personal ambition, it seems a brilliant move. Democrats in the Senate will happily overlook any past doctrinal divergences to get one step closer to a filibuster-proof majority. Democratic officials in Pennsylvania appear equally willing to let bygones be bygones if it means a Democratic senator will join Democrats Robert P. Casey Jr., the state's other senator, and Edward G. Rendell, the governor. Whether Democratic activists and would-be senatorial candidates will be as cheerful is less certain, but with President Obama's support in a heavily Democratic state, Mr. Specter, who will be 80 on Election Day in 2010, could be in good shape to win another six-year term.

Is it also a net plus for American democracy? Much has been written about the sad decline of the Republicans' moderate wing, which Mr. Specter's move both confirms and accelerates. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), head of the Senate GOP campaign committee, tried to convince Pennsylvania Republicans that an insistence on purity in the primary would lose them the seat in the general election, but Mr. Cornyn didn't prevail. We think Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who knows something about the perils of centrism, had it right on MSNBC yesterday. "You know, it's good for the Democratic Party, bad for the Republican Party that Arlen Specter left them and joined the Democratic caucus," Mr. Lieberman said. "But you know what? Overall, it's not great for American politics, because both parties should have moderate or centrist wings in them that . . . [create] more opportunity for common ground and less partisanship."

The impact of Mr. Specter's switch is less momentous than when the Republican whom Vermonters reelected to the Senate in 2000, James M. Jeffords, decided a half year later that he had more in common with the Democrats, tipping the Senate majority Democratic and making himself, briefly, a very important senator. Yet it's troubling that Pennsylvanians voted for one thing -- a Republican senator -- but now find themselves with something else: a Democrat who, if and when Minnesotan Al Franken is seated, will represent the 60th vote in the caucus.

In this case, though, Pennsylvanians will get a chance reasonably soon to embrace or reject the rebranded Mr. Specter. And Mr. Specter says he will continue to set his own course, as he has throughout his career. "I will not be an automatic 60th vote," he said. A long line of Republican leaders who have wrestled with Mr. Specter's independence could tell Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to take his newest member at his word.

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