Reihan Salam -- Specter's No Big Loss for the GOP, But Others Could Be

By Reihan Salam
Sunday, May 3, 2009

At his party-switching news conference at the White House last week, the newest Democratic senator, Arlen Specter, shared Amtrak memories with Vice President Joe Biden, reminiscing about the long hours they've spent riding "that train." It was a useful reminder that this 29-year Senate veteran has never been the most rock-ribbed Republican. Specter has always represented Acelaland -- that dense urban region that snakes along the Eastern seaboard and is home to America's financial and political establishment.

In 1965, Specter ran as a Republican for the first time to take on Philadelphia's corrupt Democratic machine. Since his first Senate win in 1980, he has been best known for shepherding conservative judicial nominees, a role that gave him the power and attention he craved. With Justice David H. Souter retiring from the Supreme Court, you can bet that Republicans will miss the tough questions Specter would have asked President Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy. But Specter was facing the prospect of a real fight for reelection as a Republican, and that was an indignity he just couldn't handle. As hard as it is to sympathize with an opportunist like Specter, successful parties depend on opportunists. They are the hermit crabs of the political scene, scuttling to whichever party will keep them in office.

But Specter isn't the only Republican who has given serious thought to leaving the party. On a recent trip, I met a businessman who had voted Republican in every presidential election since 1984, the year he turned 18. He started listening to conservative talk radio in the early 1990s, a decade he remembers as the time when he started making serious money as a car salesman. As the housing market boomed, he turned to selling real estate in southwest Florida, usually to recent immigrants. But about two years ago, after an expensive divorce, he lost his own house to foreclosure, and he started working several part-time jobs, including driving a livery cab. Then he wound up in a car accident. He was lucky that the medical expenses were covered under his auto insurance, because he didn't -- and still doesn't -- have health insurance. This gentleman has had a bad run. Yet he wasn't complaining. He did have the sense, however, that today's Republican Party is out of touch with people like him.

Being in touch matters. According to the 2008 presidential exit polls 44 percent of voters believed that only Barack Obama was in touch with "people like you," and Obama won 99 percent of them. Only 26 percent of voters felt that way about John McCain. Politics is about persuasion, and Republicans have gotten extremely bad at it -- they can't even persuade their own senators to stay on their side.

The real problem, however, is the party's frame of mind. Conservatives still believe that they are a "silent majority." So they don't see the need to win over those who disagree with them: They're convinced that all they need to do is to shout the same message -- low taxes, low taxes, low taxes -- at ever-higher volume. In a now-legendary CNBC diatribe cheered by conservatives, Rick Santelli blasted the Obama administration for subsidizing "losers' mortgages" -- many of those losers being Republicans in Florida and Arizona and California -- before calling for a tea-party revolt. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is joking about taking his state out of the Union.

But conservatives don't need higher volume. Conservatism at its best is a tough and demanding creed. To sell it, you can't call people who've lost their jobs and their homes "losers." You need to sell the virtues of a growing and flourishing economy and the free-market policies that will make it happen. Because conservatives aren't a majority, hard-edged accusations of socialism wind up alienating millions of potential allies -- voters who are a little uncomfortable with Obama's spending, particularly if it threatens to saddle their children with debt, but who recognize that the government needs to act to stave off an economic collapse. And so conservatives need to understand their political opponents. They need Whig men and Tory measures: candidates who genuinely feel the voters' pain.

When then-senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party and became an independent in 2001, the GOP sought out a new kind of candidate. Jim Talent and Norm Coleman, for example, were strikingly smart candidates who were socially conservative but could still win over suburban independents and Democrats with their solid grasp of policy issues. Had they both lived up to their potential, and had the party built on its 2004 gains with white working-class voters, the GOP would have been in far better shape -- with or without a handful of aging Rockefeller Republicans.

Instead, the party is a battered rump -- only 22 percent of the electorate identifies as Republican in the latest party survey by the Pew Research Center. It's hard to spin this as good news. And yet it's also true that Democratic identification has gone from 39 percent of the electorate in December to 33 percent. President Obama is keenly aware of this, which is why he continually emphasizes his spirit of whatever-works pragmatism. It's a clear attempt to peel off disaffected Republicans such as my Floridian friend, who sense that their party has become rigid and clueless.

Some Republicans realize this as well. One of the more plaintive reactions to Specter's move came from moderate Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, who fretted over the party's turn away from social liberalism. Snowe was speaking on behalf of a number of Republicans, including former White House speechwriter David Frum and McCain's daughter Meghan and his former campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, all of whom have been arguing forcefully that the GOP's staunch opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage represents a threat to the party's future.

While Republicans really do need to shift their stance on gay rights, the party's social conservatism is not what's driving its recent reversals. Ronald Reagan won 49 states as an ardent pro-life conservative, and it can happen again, provided that Republicans learn the right lessons from the mess they're in. Before Americans will even consider voting for you, they need to believe that you have some basic understanding of the economic challenges they face.

With Specter running in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary in 2010, Republicans have a perfect test case. There's an excellent chance that a primary candidate from the Democratic left will give Specter a serious fight, opening him up to a vigorous challenge from a Republican reformer. That challenge will probably come from Pat Toomey, who, as head of the Club for Growth, has emphasized tax cuts above all else. But as a Senate candidate, Toomey will have to connect with voters in a state hard hit by industrial decline. To have even the remotest chance of winning the seat, he'll need to offer effective solutions on health care, energy and transportation. This might not come naturally to Toomey. But if he can pull it off, and if he can claim Specter's scalp, he'll become the face of a revitalized GOP.

Reihan Salam is the co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."

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