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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 4/30/09

It Just Doesn't Matter

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Message William Rivers Pitt
As the news of Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party rolled across the news waves yesterday, I kept hearing Bill Murray from the movie "Meatballs" in my head: "It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!"

Which is not entirely true, of course. The fallout after Specter woke up on the left side of the bed on Tuesday has been entirely entertaining, largely hilarious and just significant enough to warrant a little serious attention ... but that's just politics, which is also the entire reason Specter jumped. "I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans," claimed Specter, but that's a lot of hooey; as a Republican, Specter consistently supported several of the most extreme right-wing pieces of legislation ever presented before the Senate.

No, Specter flipped for one simple reason: He was facing an insurmountable primary challenge from his right flank, in the guise of conservative House member and former Club For Growth president Pat Toomey. Down by double digits in the polls, Specter did the simple math, figured his chances of re-election were far stronger if he campaigned under the Democratic banner, and ran into the waiting arms of his colleagues across the ideological aisle.

For the GOP and its supporters, the defection brings yet another shock to an already decimated Republican system; this was rough news for them and no mistake about it. A parade of long Republican faces and clenched Republican jaws have been marching across television screen since the announcement to denounce Specter, the Democrats, President Obama, and pretty much anything else that came into their sight.

"A lot of people said, well Specter, take McCain with you, and his daughter," growled Rush Limbaugh after the news came out. RNC Chairman Michael Steel said in a statement, "Let's be honest. Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record."

With Specter's departure, goes the media refrain, the last vestiges of so-called "moderate" Republicanism are on the verge of being swept away entirely. But is Arlen Specter actually a moderate, and does his departure actually change anything? "Consider Specter's most significant votes over the last eight years," wrote Salon's Glenn Greenwald on Tuesday, "ones cast in favor of such definitive right-wing measures as: the war on Iraq, the Military Commissions Act, Patriot Act renewal, confirmation of virtually every controversial Bush appointee, retroactive telecom immunity, warrantless eavesdropping expansions, and Bush tax cuts (several times). Time and again during the Bush era, Specter stood with Republicans on the most controversial and consequential issues."

"Arlen Specter," continued Greenwald, "is one of the worst, most soul-less, most belief-free individuals in politics. The moment most vividly illustrating what Specter is: prior to the vote on the Military Commissions Act of 2006, he went to the floor of the Senate and said what the bill 'seeks to do is set back basic rights by some 900 years' and is 'patently unconstitutional on its face.' He then proceeded to vote YES on the bill's passage."

Specter's ideological inconsistency even extends to the act of switching parties, as evidenced by his reaction when James Jeffords (I-Vermont) dumped the GOP in 2001 and briefly handed majority control of the Senate to the Democrats. "Specter said then-Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' decision to become an independent was disruptive to the functioning of Congress," reported The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. "He proposed a rule forbidding party switches that had the effect of vaulting the minority to majority status in the middle of a congressional session. ' If somebody wants to change parties, they can do that,' Specter said at the time. 'But that kind of instability is not good for governance of the country and the Senate.'"

Pretty funny stuff right there.

The supposedly big deal for Democrats is the fact that, once Al Franken finally wends his way past Republican roadblocks and takes his Minnesota Senate seat, the addition of Specter to the Democratic caucus lifts their majority to the much-ballyhooed number 60, which is the number of votes needed to thwart GOP filibusters and pass legislation unimpeded. This would seem to be an important victory for the Democrats - for the first time in 30 years, one party controls the White House and Congress with a supermajority in the Senate - but really, it's just a little more theater for the masses to enjoy and the media to misinterpret.

"While the move would create what is likely to be the Senate's 60th Democratic vote, potentially enough to withstand Republican filibusters," reported The Boston Globe on Wednesday, "it would not necessarily change the chamber's legislative dynamics. Democratic successes at expanding their caucus have made it less unified ideologically, and Specter - one of only three Republicans in Congress to back Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus bill - said he expected to defy his new party as readily as he did his old one."

Thus, the idea that Democrats have achieved some lofty threshold of power is almost entirely chimerical; Specter is no more likely to caucus with the Democrats just because he is one than he was likely to caucus with the GOP back when he had an "R" after his last name. Even if Specter took some kind of blood oath to always provide that 60th vote for the Democratic caucus, the threshold itself is largely a media/right-wing confabulation.

For decades, the filibuster was considered a weapon of last resort; the use or threatened use usually only came into play when the Senate had a controversial Supreme Court nominee up for consideration. During George W. Bush's reign of error, the Republican-controlled Congress was able to pass all kinds of insanely anti-constitutional legislation between 2002 and 2006 needing just a simple majority to win, because the Democrats never took the filibuster club out of their bag.

Only when majority power in Congress changed hands after the '06 midterms did the filibuster become a daily part of governance on Capitol Hill, because the GOP used it against everything that moved. The news media, with its absolute lack of context and inability to remember anything more than a day old, has acted and spoken ever since with the incorrect idea that only a 60-vote majority can get anything done in the Senate. This is simply nonsense.

No, the Democrats have had the power to pass just about whatever they want with 51 votes ever since 2006, but have only recently begun to make noises about doing so now that health care reform is on the table. President Obama, unwilling to deal with the 60-vote-threshold fiction, is pushing his allies in the Senate to do away with the rules that give a 41-member minority the power to gum up the works. Senate Democrats could have done this three years ago, and adding Specter to the equation does not change that arithmetic one bit.

Besides, what does it say about a Democratic Party that is so willing to embrace a former Republican who has voted with the far right on so many occasions? "The idea that Specter is a 'liberal' Republican or even a 'moderate' reflects how far to the Right both the GOP and our overall political spectrum has shifted," continued Glenn Greenwald on Tuesday. "Reports today suggest that Democratic officials promised Specter that the party establishment would support him, rather than a real Democrat, in a primary. If true, few events more vividly illustrate the complete lack of core beliefs of Democratic leaders, as well as the rapidly diminishing differences between the parties. Why would Democrats want a full-blooded Republican representing them in the blue state of Pennsylvania? Specter is highly likely to reprise the Joe Lieberman role for Democrats: a 'Democrat' who leads the way in criticizing and blocking Democratic initiatives, forcing the party still further towards Republican policies."

Senators Bayh, McCaskill, Nelson, Lieberman and now Specter represent a core problem within the ranks of the Democratic majority in the Senate. These individuals amount to a cadre of faux-"centrists" who have been, and likely will continue to be, the main line of resistance against Obama's legislative agenda and the improved welfare of the American people. They are the ones most empowered when everyone inaccurately believes the Democrats need 60 votes to pass anything. The annihilation of this fiction will go a long way toward removing these obstacles from the path of progress. Let them vote their consciences, if they have such a thing, without allowing them to hold the entire process hostage.

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William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.
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