Politics & Media
Apr 29, 2009, 06:01AM

The GOP Is Disappearing

Times are tough when Arlen Specter leaves because he feels too centrist.

Specter.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

In poll after poll, Pennsylvania’s Sen. Arlen Specter had been trailing his prospective 2010 Republican primary rival, Pat Toomey, by a wide margin. Toomey is a far-right GOP politician who nearly beat Specter in 2004, and who seemed poised to crush Specter in next year’s primary contest, which offers a convenient explanation for the latter’s sudden defection to those looking for one.

Specter was ultimately done in by several converging factors. First, during the 2008 election cycle, hundreds of thousands of moderate Republican voters switched party affiliation in order to vote in the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Presumably, very few of those voters switched back.  The remaining registered GOP voters are far more conservative than the rest of the state, and Specter faced a near-certain defeat at the hands of Toomey.

Pennsylvania is also an increasingly blue state. It has gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1992, Obama beat McCain by 12 points in 2008, and 11 out of its 19 Congressional delegates are Democrats. Those developments haven’t hurt Specter, a pro-choice Republican, in general elections. But in 2004, Toomey nearly unseated Specter in the Republican primary, losing by less than two percentage points.

As the Republican party has become more conservative and the state as a whole more liberal over the past decade or so, Specter has found himself in a difficult spot. Facing the same challenge as the Republican presidential candidates did in 2008, Specter had to pander to the far right during the primary, but not so much as to alienate the electorate as a whole during the general election.

Prior to 2009, Specter pulled it off. But now, as the GOP reacts to its stinging 2008 electoral losses by becoming more ideologically “pure,” alienating moderates of both parties, Specter found that he was the odd one out. His vote, along with only two other Republicans, for the stimulus bill earlier this year was the final straw. Shortly afterwards, Toomey declared he would run against Specter once again.

For those of us outside the GOP, it might seem strange that the Republicans would choose a candidate who probably isn’t going to win the general election. Having lost ground across the country in 2008, you might expect the Republicans would craft a political platform that incorporated a greater number of voters. However, as Andrew Sargus Klein has written here at Splice, the GOP has done the opposite. At every step, Republicans have consciously narrowed their base to a politically nonviable “rump” of a party, headed by men like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck.

Moderate Republicans like Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine are acutely aware of the shift. In reaction to Specter’s decision, Snowe noted that “On the national level of the Republican Party, we haven’t certainly heard warm, encouraging words about how they view moderates, either you are with us or against us.”

What does the GOP hope to accomplish by abandoning its moderates and shifting ever farther to the right? What Republicans apparently believe is that the GOP lost its way because it became too centrist; too moderate. The problem wasn’t that John McCain was too conservative; it was that he was too liberal.

As Ross Douthat wrote in The New York Times, what today’s Republicans want is “‘Real conservatism’ … a conservatism of supply-side economics and stress positions, uninterested in social policy and dismissive of libertarian qualms about the national-security state.”

By ejecting their supposedly too-liberal (RNC chairman Michael Steele outrageously called Specter “left-wing”) colleagues, Republican politicians believe they are initiating a process that will purify Republican ideology and lead to an eventual political resurgence. Incredibly, the current GOP thinks that a right-winger like Sarah Palin, who can only win in very conservative regions, is preferable to a moderate Republican like Specter who can win in a liberal region.

The consequences of such a strategy are clear. Republicans have been losing ground since 2006. And now, in 2009, assuming that Minnesota’s Al Franken is seated, Democrats will have the 60 votes necessary to prevent Republican filibusters in the Senate. Obama’s political roadmap has become much, much easier.

Of course, it will not always be easy for Obama and other Democratic leaders to garner 60 votes. There are several moderate/conservative Democrats in the Senate, including Evan Bayh of Indiana and Max Baucus of Montana. But with Specter under pressure to vote more liberally (to compete in the Democratic primary) as opposed to more conservatively, the odds are pretty good that Obama will get a lot more done in 2009/2010 than he otherwise would have.

For liberals, Specter’s defection is a gift. For Republicans, it’s a disaster. What remains to be seen is whether the Republican party is capable of learning from its mistakes.

  • Obviously, Specter's defection is, at the least, a short-term problem for the GOP, which is still bereft of a national leader. But to suggest the Republican Party is disappearing is naive. The same was said after LBJ trounced Goldwater in '64 (and Goldwater's grass-roots recruiting efforts weren't realized by many until later), and in '74, after Nixon resigns. After the GOP landslide in '94, Bill Clinton was reduced to wondering whether he was still relevant. So, it runs in cycles. Could this current cycle resemble that of the FDR coalition that started with his election in 1932? Possibly, but not likely.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment