When I heard that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) had become Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), I was markedly less excited than the Democratic world at large seems to be. Sure, I get that it's a good day for the Democratic Party, but it still leaves me with a bad feeling in my mouth. I thought I'd take this chance to explain that bad feeling.
To get it out of the way, I acknowledge that this is a big day for us. Moving the president's agenda through the Senate did become marginally easier (or will whenever Al Franken is sworn in) and a strong message was sent to moderate voters that the Republican Party no longer has a place for them. These are things to celebrate and we should all pool money together to buy Pat Toomey a big ol' bottle of his favorite brand of crazyface whisky.
Still, I have some reservations.
Not As Big A Deal As It Seems
Yes, this frees him up to vote with us on healthcare. Ambinder writes, "Getting to 60 on health care this year is inevitable now. Giving labor more room to maneuver during the legislative negotiations is also more likely." If that were true, it would be a good thing. But I'm not sure that adding Snarlin' Arlen to the coalition makes negotiations any easier.
Really, this all comes down to one's view of reconciliation as a the vehicle for healthcare. Going that route would allow the White House to pass healthcare (something on which it's particularly important to avoid logrolling and buying votes) without dealing with Sens. Bayh, Bennet, Collins, Lincoln, Nelson, Snowe, Specter and that crew of squishy moderates. Avoiding reconciliation would allow the White House to create a broader based coalition and look "bi-partisan" in the press. Having Specter in a blue shirt would make the 60-vote plan a bit easier, but not necessarily more appealing. On something as fundamental as healthcare, I could care less what the media thinks about the process and I'd be perfectly happy avoiding the kind of giveaways to Sens. Collins, Snowe, and Specter than typified the stimulus bill.
Cap-and-trade will not advance because of Specter as long as there are 4-6 Democrats ready to jump ship (barring the use of reconciliation here, too). The situation on EFCA might not change at all, if Ambinder is correct that Specter today "reiterated his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, saying that he would also oppose a filibuster-killing cloture vote." More generously, "On the one hand, labor folks have some time to convince Specter than an EFCA vote won't be as bad. On the other hand, they don't have their own pro-EFCA Democrat to do it with. 'Card check' legislation really hasn't advanced. Specter will risk being seen as wishy-washy (even more so!) if he changes his mind after saying he wouldn't. ON THE OTHER HAND -- Specter could be the compromise-broker."
Bye-bye Dreams of Senator Sestak
The point about having a "pro-EFCA Democrat" is an important one. Had Specter stayed in his own party, our nominee would have walked over Pat Toomey in a joke of a general election, replacing new Democrat Arlen Specter with a real Democrat like Joe Sestak or Allyson Schwartz, who would have been a reliable vote on not only EFCA, but healthcare, the budget, the stimulus, and the whole shebang.
Now, we'll never get that chance. At least not until 2016, and we can't assume that the Republicans will nominate a Pat Toomey-esque nutjob then, too. And I doubt that Specter will get a real test in the Democratic primary, holding his feet to the fire to vote with the president. I'm sure that Schumer, Menendez, Rahm-bo, and Rendell all promised him that they would squash any talk of a real primary challenge. So while Specter is no longer compelled to vote against the president on certain issues, he is still free not to vote with his new party whenever he wants.
Sure, He Might Be Better Than Ben Nelson, But......
Yes, I expect Arlen to vote with us a little more than he has in his career to date. Still, the man's voting record is considerably more conservative than that of Sens. Bayh, Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, and even Sens. Collins and Snowe. He's also never felt a really strong need to vote with his party, and I don't see that changing. My point here is just that Arlen Specter will not find himself in middle of the Democratic Party, or even the center-right. We just got ourselves another social moderate who is very cautious about anything that smells of social democracy. Congratulations on Blanche Lincoln 2.0!
He's Wishy Washy, To An Extreme
Another reason I feel weird about this is that I just don't trust the guy. He loves compromise soooo much, that he tends to produce policies that are simply incoherent (you haven't forgotten who invented the magic bullet theory, have you?). He couldn't bring himself to vote to convict, nor to acquit President Clinton, so he dug up his old Scots Law textbook and tried to vote "not proven." Yeah, that's not in the rules. And even Ross Douthat was offended by his role in shrinking the size of the stimulus package, saying that he might have crippled the president's efforts by forcing an awkward compromise. I just get the impression that he loves being the swing vote, being in the middle of negotiations a little too much so that he sacrifices coherent policy-making in pursuit of compromise.
An Act of Cowardice
"I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican Primary electorate," he said. "I am prepared to take on all-comers, all comers in a general election." (Ambinder)
All comers? Really? If he were willing to take on all comers, wouldn't he run as an independent so that both parties could challenge him? (Just as an aside, a Sestak-Specter-Toomey race would have been incredible). That's not what he's doing. He's not taking on all comers. He's cherry picking his opponent. As I said above, I'm sure he's been promised a cake walk of a primary. Which means his only real opponent will be Pat Toomey. All comers? What a joke. And what a coward.
The Senate Is Stupid
Finally, I hate that it works like this. How is it that after the biggest one-party blowout since 1964 (in that one party won the presidency and large congressional majorities in the same election), the Republicans mattered in the stimulus negotiations and will continue to matter until 2010? 240 congressional districts are represented by two Democratic Senators, to only 102 represented by two Republican Senators. Split the remainder 50-50 and our Senators virtually represent 65.9% of the nation's congressional districts. Our Representatives actually control 59.1% of the nation's congressional districts. So how is it that we need one man to change sides under pressure from his own party to take away the Republicans' ability to veto everything the American people voted for?
It's Still a Good Thing For Today
None of these reservations dimish the symbolic impact of this move. It's still a strong signal that moderates have no place in the Republican Party. And it will make a difference in moving the president's agenda. I just wanted to lay out why I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.
UPDATE: Ambinder confirms, unions looking to challenge Specter, have no idea who would run against him. Their enthusiasm for the switch seems to be diminishing rapidly.