Will GOP Sleep Through Wake-Up Call?

President Obama said he will offer Sen. Arlen Specter his full support when Specter runs for re-election in 2010. Specter announced Tuesday that he will switch his party affiliation to the Democrats. Video by AP
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How much more can the Republicans take? Demoralized, contracting and lacking their own agenda, Republicans yesterday saw their ranks further thinned with the stunning news that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is switching parties to run for reelection in 2010 as a Democrat.

The question now is whether Specter's departure will produce a period of genuine introspection by a party already in disarray or result in a circling of the wagons by those who think the GOP is better off without those whose views fall outside its conservative ideological boundaries.

Weighing in on one side yesterday was Rush Limbaugh. "He's not a moderate," Limbaugh said of Specter. "He is a liberal Republican, and this is a natural winnowing process that is taking place. . . . Within the Republican Party, people who are not really Republicans are now leaving. People who are not really conservatives are now really leaving. So it's going to be not much smaller, but it's going to be a little bit more focused a party and a base."

Weighing in on the other side was Steve Schmidt, who was one of Sen. John McCain's top advisers in the 2008 campaign and who recently called on Republicans to consider altering their opposition to same-sex marriage. He said Specter's determination that he had to become a Democrat to continue his career in public service "because his party no longer welcomes him is a pitiful commentary on the state of the party, based on the fact that we continue to shrink when we should focus on trying to grow."

Specter was rightly worried about his own survival and made what many Republicans view as a politically expedient decision. He concluded he could not win a GOP primary challenge against conservative former congressman Pat Toomey, who is president of the Club for Growth, particularly after supporting President Obama's economic stimulus package.

Republican strategist John Feehery said: "Moderates need to be careful before they go off and cut deals with President Obama. Their political base will not back them, even in the Northeast."

Some Republicans think they are better off without Specter. As GOP strategist Kevin Madden quipped, "In the short term, the switch itself means the grumbling on Capitol Hill about Specter being unreliable as a party-line vote will now be coming from Democrats instead of Republicans."

But Madden, like Schmidt, offered a note of caution to fellow Republicans, urging them to look at the departure through a longer lens.

"It's a mistake to just brush this off," he wrote in an e-mail message. "We can use this occasion as an impetus to answer the challenge of rebuilding the Republican Party so that once again it has the ideas and the leaders that appeal to Republicans, independents and like-minded Democrats."

Specter's decision provides further evidence that the party is continuing to contract, especially outside the South. Northeastern Republicans have gone from an endangered species to nearly extinct. Obama's victory in Pennsylvania in November was due in part to a sizeable shift in party registration toward the Democrats. Republicans have lost ground in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest in the past two elections. That is no way to build a national party.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the depth of the party's problems. Just 21 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans. From a high-water mark of 35 percent in the fall of 2003, Republicans have slid steadily to their present state of affairs. Party identification does fluctuate with events. But as a snapshot indicator, the latest figures highlight the impact of Obama's opening months on the Republican Party.

The Republicans have many demographic challenges as they plot their comeback. Obama has attracted strong support from young voters and Latinos. Suburban voters have moved toward the Democrats. Specter can see that problem acutely in the Philadelphia suburbs. Obama is also holding a solid advantage among independents, the proxy measure for the center or swing portion of the electorate.

Reihan Salam, co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save America," said this week that the danger for Republicans is to think that they now represent a vast, silent majority that is waiting to reassert itself. "When you believe yourself to be a silent majority, you don't feel the need to reach out," he said. "Rather, you think that getting louder and more aggressive is the solution."

The Post-ABC News poll points to Republican slippage since Obama took office in January. Sixty percent of the country trusts Obama to make the right decisions for the nation's future, while 21 percent trusts congressional Republicans -- down eight points since January. A CBS News-New York Times poll found that 70 percent of Americans think Republicans have opposed those policies for political reasons rather than because they genuinely believe the policies are bad for the economy.

Whether Obama's policies will work isn't yet clear. Republicans are betting they won't, and the 2010 midterm elections provide them an opportunity to begin their comeback. After two losing elections, history says they should gain back seats. Their gubernatorial candidates may be in a position to incubate new ideas for a party desperately in search of them.

Many Republicans have blamed most of the party's problems on President George W. Bush's unpopular leadership. But the problems go deeper than any one person. Specter's shocking departure may provide a wake-up call to Republicans that a broad reassessment is urgently needed.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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