On conservative Websites, the reaction seems to be "good riddance." I think this is wrongheaded, for reasons specific to Specter and more generally. Specter has not been a reliable Republican partisan, but when he has been he has been mightily effective -- on the nominations of Justice Thomas, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, on the Iraq war and the surge, on the unions' card check bill that would effectively abolish the secret ballot in unionization elections (which he noted that he will continue to oppose).
Specter's switch now gives the Democrats a 59th vote in the Senate, and if and when Al Franken is seated they will have a 60th. Those will not be automatic votes for cloture on every issue. But Specter's switch clearly strengthens the Democrats' hand.
The Club for Growth, which Toomey used to head and which supported him in 2004 and again this year, has made a practice of targeting moderate Republicans in primaries even at the risk of losing the seat in the general election. This arguably made good sense when Republicans had majorities in Congress and needed reliable votes to pass major legislation. It makes much less sense now that Republicans have beleaguered minorities in Congress and are trying to stop things. It makes even less sense when a conservative primary challenger such as Toomey faces such long odds in November.
Specter decided to defect after Sen. James DeMint of South Carolina told him on Monday that he planned to support Toomey. "I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs," DeMint said.
DeMint may get his wish. When Churchill left the Liberals, they had led governments for 16 of the preceding 18 years. They never did so again. A party in decline should adapt its basic philosophy to new policies and positions in order to win over voters, rather than stand on principle and expel heretics.
Arlen Specter will never rise to Churchillian heights and will probably be, as Churchill was after 1924, as uncomfortable in his new party as in the old. But he also seems likely to have, as Churchill did, the last laugh.