Specter's Party Switch Is All About Winning

Michael Barone

4/30/2009 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

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.

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.