Compare and contrast two men: former congressmen Jack Kemp, one of the architects of the Reagan Revolution, who passed away last weekend at the age of 73; and Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania senator who switched parties to stay alive politically for another term. Specter is famous for believing whatever he needs to "believe" to get elected. Dour, Dickensian and mercenary, he is regarded by observers across the aisle as a relentless partisan for the Party of Specter. Kemp, meanwhile, was a man of ideas and relentless, unflagging optimism, beloved on both sides of the aisle. For Kemp, the bigger the pile of manure, the more likely there was a Christmas pony somewhere. With Specter, spreading manure is always its own reward.
Kemp's death should be cause for deep reflection about what the Republican Party is about. Specter's defection is much less significant. Yes, we can appreciate that a rat is telling us something important when it flees a sinking ship, but we don't have to admire the rat.
Few dispute that the USS GOP is listing badly. But admitting it doesn't mean one should take advice from those who helped scuttle her. For many liberals, in and out of the party, Specter's decision was greeted as proof that the GOP had become too right-wing, too obsessed with social issues. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine proclaimed in response to Specter's self-defenestration, "It was when we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of some of our basic tenets as a party that we encountered an electoral backlash." Snowe implores Republicans to get back to basics and concentrate on such things as fighting government spending.
Such analysis is gospel in many quarters, though it doesn't make much sense. For instance, George W. Bush's problems were caused by Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the economy, not social issues. And Specter was always pro-choice and otherwise socially liberal; yet he routinely won the support of the party.
The recent anti-Specter backlash was over his vote for President Obama's stimulus package. And Snowe herself was also one of just three GOP senators, all "moderates," who voted for the federal economic stimulus. If they want to get back to basics, maybe they could have started by thwarting a Godzillan pork bill that's large enough to be seen from space, that will spend billions of dollars long after the Obama administration says the economy will recover.
Moreover, this argument assumes the existence of a creature that Kate O'Beirne of the National Review Institute calls the "Jackalope of American politics": the socially liberal fiscal conservative. These critters are allegedly America's real silent majority, except they are exceedingly rare. Most people who are socially liberal are economically liberal as well. Embracing what Barry Goldwater called "me-too" Republicanism, agreeing to liberal principles while being just a bit more frugal about living up to them, might win over a few of these exotic creatures, but it will lose tens of millions of committed conservatives. Given a choice between an authentic Democratic Party and an unenthusiastic knockoff, why vote for the pale imitation?
The real answer for the GOP isn't to narrow the differences between the parties but to heighten them. Conservatism's greatest achievements have arisen from giving Americans a "choice, not an echo," as Goldwater famously put it.
In 1974, during the bleak post-Watergate period, Ronald Reagan raised "a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors." In 1978, as the U.S. floundered under President Carter, Kemp flew the flag of massive tax reform. Inspired by Kemp, the Reagan campaign in 1980 proposed an audacious 30 percent cut in taxes.
And herein lies the real opportunity in Specter's defection. It's likely the Democrats will now have the 60 votes to run the Senate. Hence, Obama's legislative failures will, by definition, be failures to win over members of his own party. Republican "intransigence" and "partisanship" will be rhetorical in that Republicans have no formal means of stopping Obama, only the power of their arguments.
That is the environment conservatives thrive in. Yes, the Republican Party needs some new ideas, new solutions to our problems. But conservatives do not need new convictions. The GOP can choose to be the party of Kemp or of Specter, the choice or the echo. The spirit of Kemp stands for principle over power. The specter of Specter glorifies solely the principle of power. Kemp was far from perfect, but after his short time in government, he'll be remembered not only for doing great things but also for believing in the greatness of America.
Arlen Specter, even if he spends 40 more years in government, will be remembered for nothing at all.