Only his most sycophantic admirers might compare Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter with Winston Churchill, but the two do have something in common. Both had long and turbulent political careers, and both switched parties twice.
Churchill crossed aisles from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904 and from the Liberals to the Conservatives in 1924. Specter switched to the Republican Party in 1966 after he was elected district attorney of Philadelphia County, and on Tuesday he returned to the Democratic Party in hopes of winning reelection to his sixth term in the Senate next year.
Specter's crossover tells us interesting things about Specter and about the state of the Republican Party. In his statement announcing the change, he was unusually candid for a politician. He didn't break with the Republicans on issues but instead focused on his electoral prospects.
Since 2004, when he edged Rep. Pat Toomey in the Republican primary by 51 percent to 49 percent and then won the general election 53 percent to 42 percent, he has obviously been weaker among registered Republicans than among Pennsylvania voters generally. His recent vote for the Democrats' stimulus package prompted Toomey to announce he was running again, and the latest public polls showed Toomey leading Specter 51 percent to 30 percent and 41 percent to 27 percent.
But the polls also showed Specter winning the general election as a Republican or as a Democrat. This stirred Specter's legendary defiance: "I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania primary electorate."
That primary electorate has grown smaller of late. Some 200,000 Pennsylvania voters switched their party registration from Republican to Democrat between 2004 and 2008. John McCain, despite campaigning heavily in Pennsylvania, won 137,000 fewer votes than George W. Bush did in 2004. Barack Obama won 338,000 more than John Kerry. In the 2004 Pennsylvania exit poll, Republicans trailed Democrats by just 41 percent to 39 percent; in 2008, the margin was 44 percent to 37 percent.
Specter's argument -- that if a majority of Pennsylvania voters wanted him re-elected, he should be -- is obviously self-serving. But it's not self-evidently wrong.