Everybody is talking about the defection of Arlen Specter today giving the Democrats 60 Senate seats, with the assumed, yet unfulfilled, seating of Franken and with the caucusing Independents. I wanted to add my two cents, but my take is relatively conventional.
Specter, along with Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, voted to support the Economic Stimulus Package, a vote that marginalized him within his party. With growing rebuke and declining personal poll numbers within his base, Specter, a long time supporter of labor, tried to shore up his right flank, to fend off a possible primary opponent, by coming out against Employee Free Choice, effectively angering Pennslyvania's Big Labor organizations. It didn't matter. Club for Growth President, Patrick Toomey, who lost to Specter in a Senatorial primary by less than 1% six years ago, threw his name in the hat. Multiple polls, both internal and public, showed Specter losing to Toomey by over 20+ points. Specter saw the writing on the wall, and he realized that he could not be re-elected as a Senator as a Republican. At this time, Democratic courting ensued with special attention from Vice President Biden. Because of blue-ness of Pennslyvania, the difficulty of running as an Independent, and the inability to run as an Independent if he lost a primary, Specter realized, pragmatically speaking, that his only chance to maintain his power was to become a Democrat. And, it doesn't hurt that, since Specter's defection, all Democratic potential challengers have now dropped out, and Pres. Obama has provided a full-throated endorsement for Specter, including promises of future fundraising.
As a Democrat, I am excited to reach the threshold of 60 Senate seats required to stop filibusters. But we should all remember that his defection from the Republican party does not mean newfound philosophical allegiance to Democratic ideals. As Specter stated, he will not be an assumed vote for cloture. Specter will still be Specter. While some Democratic activists are not overly thrilled by this move, I think there is a lot to be optimistic about. Specter is now automatically the least progressive Democrat in our caucus, but now that he caucuses - attending actual policy and strategic planning meetings - with Democrats, I would expect a slide leftward. Sure, he is not as progressive as I would like, but I'll take it - every day of the week.
Breaking the 60 seat threshold, however, should not come without any unease for Democrats. Now Democrats have complete ownership of Obama's agenda. We have lost the ability to blame Republicans for legislative obstruction. The Republican party is almost irrelevant, and we bear that burden of success, possibly a drowning millstone. Democrats are more powerful than the Republican party was during the Bush Administration, and that power did not work out so well for Republicans. Democrats must be careful and learn from recent history.
Finally, the death spiral of the Republican party is almost complete. Outside of Maine, and including the retirement of Sen. Judd, New England is almost exclusively Democratic territory. Democrats have won almost all of the swing states/districts countrywide, and Democrats have made major gains in ruby red states/districts. As such, moderate Republicans are going the way of the do-do bird. The Republican party is becoming a Southern, white, conservative party, which, ideologically speaking, is out of touch with the mainstream of current American sentiment. The nucleus of the remaining party espouses a growing intolerance for moderation, and as Specter stated, the big-tent Democratic party is now the party of moderates, of middle America.
What does the Specter spectacle mean to you?