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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Specter Flip: Mild Glee Everywhere

You’ll probably hear a lot of crowing and shrieking about Sen. Arlen Specter’s announcement today that he will run for re-election in the Democratic primary next year. But ritualistic reactions aside, this is probably one of those “dramatic” decisions that will actually produce little more than a mild, warm feeling among activists in both parties.
The immediate implications in Congress are modest if real. Yes, Specter’s flip theoretically gives Democrats (in conjunction with the eventual seating of Al Franken) the magic 60 votes necessary to cut off filibusters. And that may matter on relatively small Senate matters where party-line voting is routine. On bigger issues, there’s no way Democrats can entirely rely on Ben Nelson, and several other Dems have shown a willingness to buck the administration. Moreover, Specter’s no guaranteed vote, either; he’s already indicated he won’t reverse his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act (though it wouldn’t be surprising if he became more amenable to a compromise, if one emerges).
On the other hand, if Specter faces or fears a Democratic primary opponent in 2010 (those promises by leading PA Dems to clear the field for him are a little stale at present), he may well toe his new party’s line more faithfully than would otherwise be the case.
In terms of PA politics, Specter definitely will have an easier path to reelection as a Democrat, even if he attracts primary opposition. He was getting pretty toasty in his Republican primary race against Pat Toomey, who nearly beat him last time around. Toomey’s own slim hopes of actually becoming a senator just went down, ironically enough, but his challenge was always more about punishing Specter than winning a general election.
It’s the high symbolism of Specter’s switch that may matter most. Departing from the GOP with Specter was another chunk of the ever-dwindling legacy of moderate Republicanism, which activists in both parties largely deplore. It certainly won’t be regretted by culturally conservative GOPers, who have long thought of Specter as a bitter enemy, or by the broad ranks of conservatives who have convinced themselves that ideological vagueness is the party’s chief political problem. Specter’s essentially a relic of those days when heterodox Republicans could create a power base in Congress for themselves through the power of the seniority system; with Republicans back in the minority, that power base was long gone.
So although some of the rhetoric you’ll hear will echo that of the days after Jim Jeffords’ party switch in 2001, which flipped control of the Senate, it’s more a matter of an old shoe finally dropping than any real change in the balance of power. Republicans decided a long time ago that they really had little use for their “moderate” wing, and what’s left of it is predictably winging away.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist
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