That Pennsylvania’s senior US senator, Arlen Specter left the Republican Party, to join the Democratic Party is no reason for any US citizen to celebrate. Indeed, it is a moment to ponder as a monumental loss to America, and to the vibrancy of our democratic republic.
No more than does one person possess the “truth” and the wisdom of the ages does any one political party. A democracy demands tension in order to survive. It must have it if it expects to thrive. Indeed, the gentlemen who met in Philadelphia those more than 220 years ago were so convinced of this as a tautology that they configured our federal government specifically to promote and sustain tension between the branches, even between the two legislative chambers.
They did not, however conjure a political cleavage into two political camps. Had they speculated ahead somewhat more than they did they’d have seen the development of a 2-party system as inevitable and necessary in a non-parliament form of republicanism.
The fact of Specter’s departure from a party . . . No, that’s not accurate. To borrow a phrase from Reagan (and how I hate doing that), Specter did not leave the party, it left him. In fact, except for a few yet hanging on by their prehensile tails, the Republican Party left everyone with the capacity for empathetic thought.
The first notorious indications of what lay ahead was center stage in the form of Republican Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy; the face of modern American political hatred. It was virulent. And blind. And deadly. And always bullying, it fed on base human fear and those insufficiently powerful to defend themselves from it.
It was first the Southern wing of the Democratic Party; Democrats only because it was the party of Lincoln that constantly reminded them of their shame. Until the party that was not the party of Lincoln, in 1965 crossed the philosophical Rubicon by standing firm for civil rights for all Americans, thus giving birth to the Dixiecrats of Strom Thurmond, and then to a President Richard Nixon who became president by crafting Southern bigotry into a victorious political strategy. It wasn’t just racial bigotry either. It was bigotry in all its loathsome permutations; ethnic, religious, sexual orientation . . . You name it, and the GOP became its tawdry home.
Reagan went so far as to kick off his presidential aspirations in Philadelphia, Mississippi; reminding his white supporters how they had every right to distrust, even despise a federal government that would enter their town, just because they had lynched black Americans, murdered those who were trying to register black Americans to vote, and were burning their farms and churches to the ground.
And on Reagan’s foundation of hatred soon stood Sessions and Delay and Bush and Cheney and Rove and Limbaugh and Coulter and a swarm of Evangelical ministers demanding a knee-jerk salute to a puritanical purity they themselves never bothered to follow.
The problem for Arlen Specter, however, was that he has never fit such a mold. He has always been a decent fellow. One might disagree with some or many of the positions he has taken, but one would never be able to legitimately challenge his decency. Nonetheless, the GOP had become so incredibly narrow-minded that they did just that: challenged his fundamental decency.
Perhaps the only thing he will bring to the Democratic Party is less fear they will have to overcome a Republican filibuster every time a vote on a bill or a candidate for an administration cabinet post is needed. Specter will not fit in with the more to the left liberals — Durbin, Boxer, Feingold, and Schumer, for example. Rather, he’ll be more closely aligned with the sentiments of Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Jon Tester and Mark Pryor. Specter has already said he is not with the Dems on the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act, an issue that during the campaign Obama claimed to strongly endorse. The Dems will not have to worry about a filibuster, but neither they be able to count on support from the ex-Republican for much else.
Specter’s leaving puts the GOP in the same photograph as General Motors: teetering on the edge of oblivion. Only now, if there ever was any question that the Republican Party is staring into the abyss of irrelevance, even the blind can now see the truth of their dire circumstance.
The most likely eventual scenario has the GOP, as a brand, following the Whigs and Federalists; going out of business. And sooner or later, the Democratic Party will finally cleave in two. The Blue Dog Democrats share more philosophically with Republican Jeb Hensarling, US Representative from Texas, than they do with Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Nancy Pelosi.
It was all as if Specter hung up the sign, “Will the last thinking Republican please turn out the lights.” That’s a tragedy for all of us. While no one needs a party consumed by arrogance and ambition and corruption and just plain ugliness, a country very much does need a counterweight, to act as a governing balance, to prevent the majority’s inertia from spinning out of orbit.