With Republicans Like These...
By Isaac MacMillen
As Senator Arlen Specter walked across the aisle for good this past Tuesday, he lambasted those he accused of trying to “purify” the Republican Party. The nearly three-decade Pennsylvania Senator finally reverted to the party of his youth—and the party of his vote. While many conservatives are celebrating the move—popular talk show host Rush Limbaugh is calling for Specter to bring McCain with him—Republicans who share Mr. Specter's affinity for the far left are expressing dismay. Says fellow moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe:
"Ultimately, we're heading to having the smallest political tent in history, the way events have been unfolding. If the Republican Party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle."
The problem with Senator Snowe is that she doesn't understand the bedrock principles and broad base of her own party. Nor does she understand the penalty it pays for abandoning both. While the Democrats traditionally run liberal primaries, move towards the center for the general election, and then revert to liberal policies once in office, Republicans start on the right, move towards the center—and then, when elected, they invariably try to curry favor with the far left in order to try to secure their seats and appear bipartisan (as if liberals ever returned the favor).
It's no wonder, then, that many in the Republican base are fed up with their politicians, who, as the old saw goes, “first run on our issues, then run from it.”
And time and again that in those rare instances when they do take a principled stand, winning is almost de riguer. One must simply look at the landslides of President Ronald Reagan, certainly the most conservative president in the post-WWII era. A decade later, the 1994 revolution proved that a conservative message could sweep both chambers of Congress, and finally the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections proved that Republicans could hold on to all three houses.
No, the problem Republicans have is not that they are “too conservative” to win elections; their problem is that they forget to bring those principles with them to Washington. “Greedy” Republicans spent hundreds of billions on pork projects. Government programs and agencies grew, when they should have shrunk. And during the “W” years, they voted in lock-step with a President whose policies were hardly a paragon of fiscal conservatism—a principle upon which many of them had campaigned. It is little wonder, then, that the American people grew tired of the invariable hypocrisy and threw the rascals out.
The few liberal Republicans that remain have not learned that lesson. Indeed, in his Tuesday press conference, Sen. Specter moved beyond simply defending his stimulus vote—when he joined liberal Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in blocking a Republican filibuster—and virtually staked his political career on it. He said:
"It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.”
Even ignoring the obvious question as to where Mr. Specter thinks the “Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate” lives, the fact is 59 percent of Americans now view the bailouts as a bad idea. Halving the deficit is viewed as the top priority by Americans (32 percent). A full 63 percent believe tax cuts help the economy. And Americans by a 48-35 percent margin affirm that increased government spending will hurt the economy. In short, big-spending politicians like Senator Specter will have a lot of explaining to do—to the repugnant “primary electorate,” and everyone else, as well.
Specter's defection was obviously prompted not so much by a twinge of conscience as by glaring polls showing him a whopping 21 points behind conservative challenger Pat Toomey—who is taking every opportunity to capitalize on Sen. Specter's bailout vote. Specter's own attempts to pay lip service to conservatives appear to have ended in failure. Perhaps his record had some bearing on the issue.
“Conservatives in Pennsylvania have long known that Arlen Specter does a dance in which he's a liberal for five years of a Senate term and then casts a few conservative votes leading up to a primary. This time — after voting for all of the bailouts and the pork-filled stimulus bill — Sen. Specter is dancing the same old dance, but the music isn't playing.”
Ironically, while Specter claims his side-swapping is the result of “conviction” on his part to stand true for “principle,” he denies those attributes to tried and true Republican loyalists, slamming them for attempting to be “pure.” He states: “They don't make any bones about their willingness to lose the general election if they can purify the party”—which sounds strangely like “principle.”
Those words may come back to haunt him. While the 2010 races have not yet begun to heat up, the Democrats may take a good look at him and decide that they want someone who shares more of their own principles—and is not already an ailing octogenarian. After all, why go for a long-in-the-tooth moderate, when the trends of the Keystone state would seem to allow a fairly youthful liberal to win? (Can anyone say, “Ed Rendell”?)
Senator Specter may pride himself at being independent, but as his voting record fits neither party precisely, that may hurt him in the end. In addition to that is the fact that his “word” now appears subject to political expediency, as demonstrated by his emphatic statement not even two months ago on why he wouldn't leave the party.
On March 17th, Specter told The Hill that he would stay a Republican as a check against a one-party system. He said:
“I am staying a Republican because I think I have an important role, a more important role, to play there. The United States very desperately needs a two-party system. That's the basis of politics in America. I'm afraid we are becoming a one-party system, with Republicans becoming just a regional party with so little representation of the northeast or in the middle Atlantic. I think as a governmental matter, it is very important to have a check and balance. That's a very important principle in the operation of our government. In the constitution on Separation of powers.”
Perhaps the real lesson for the GOP in the Specter debacle is that the “Big Tent” is nothing more than a three-ring circus. And recent elections have repeatedly shown that the Republican rank and file is tired of the party sending in the clowns. If Specter, Snowe, and Collins are determined to “pitch their tents towards Gomorrah,” then maybe it's time to let the purification proceed.
Isaac MacMillen is a Contributing Editor for ALG News Bureau.