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Cannibalism: The GOP's Urge to Purge

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Yes, Arlen Specter is the president of his own fan club.

The former Pennsylvania senator doesn't exactly come across as Mr. Humility in his new book, Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, a Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing As We Know It. In fact, he strikes the reader as somewhat self-absorbed and self-righteous, maudlin and thin-skinned; at times, it's hard to avoid labeling him a crank. The book's misogyny is also tough to take: did the world really need a book presenting former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood in a somewhat sympathetic light, or describing 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as having "radiated sensuality"?

Despite the flaws of the book -- and the author -- Life Among the Cannibals is nonetheless a remarkable work, as Specter courageously chastises the Republican Party for its fixation on litmus tests. Specter -- a veteran Republican who left the party in April 2009 -- is right to warn of the risks posed to America by hyper-partisanship.

Specter notes that his refusal to toe the right-wing line always irritated the enforcers of epistemic closure within the GOP:

I was generally out of sync with the social conservative movement, though we found occasional common ground, on opposing flag burning and partial-birth abortion ... The GOP's rightward shift made me uncomfortable, and even more independent.

When Specter began his career in the Senate in 1981, there were still some prominent moderate Republicans in both houses of Congress, but redistricting (in the House) and retirements (in the Senate) thinned out those ranks. In the mid-1990s, he launched an ill-fated bid for the presidency, and realized the extent to which moderates were hated in the GOP:

I saw how far right the GOP had veered while weighing a run for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, for a shot at unseating Bill Clinton in the general election. In Des Moines in June 1994, when I mentioned the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state before an Iowa Republican group, they booed me. That wasn't Arlen Specter's doctrine. That was Thomas Jefferson's. That got me going ... My [failed] campaign served as a warning, clear and present danger, to any centrist -- and certainly any pro-choice centrist -- who would set foot in the wilds of Republican presidential politics. It wasn't a shot across the bow; it was a shot into the bow.

Specter also asserts that the GOP's rush to the right also sparked the Democratic Party's lurch to the left:

As Republicans moved right, Democrats moved left as hard-line liberals filled their caucus. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a registered independent and self-described socialist who caucused with the Democrats, constantly argued in caucus that Democratic senators shouldn't seek Republican votes, which would water down efforts to reform campaign finance and Wall Street. Democrats also took hard left turns on national defense and abortion, and on welfare and other social-services issues.

In 2004, Specter faced a challenge from conservative Rep. Pat Toomey, who was backed by the anti-moderate Club for Growth. With the backing of President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum, Specter barely survived Toomey's challenge; he later defeated Rep. Joe Hoeffel to secure a fifth term in the Senate.

After five more years of running afoul of the religious and economic right, Specter made the bold decision to vote for President Obama's stimulus package. It wasn't an easy decision, but Specter felt he had no other choice:

The thought of [another] 1930s depression was never far from my mind. I didn't want to be responsible for a repeat. The president's mandate also weighed on me. The American people had spoken. They were expecting the new president to take the lead. I recalled how FDR had brought Keynesian economics to take the lead.

Specter's vote triggered an intense backlash fueled by conservative talk radio, a backlash that made Specter realize that his centrism and caution were no longer acceptable in the GOP. Realizing that he was unlikely to defeat Toomey in a primary rematch, Specter announced on April 28, 2009 that he had decided to leave the Republican Party and become a Democrat.

However, his troubles weren't eased: he faced the wrath of Tea Party supporters who feared that he would support health care reform, and the anger of union officials who were upset by his skepticism about the Employee Free Choice Act. In May 2010, he was defeated in the Democratic primary by Rep. Joe Sestak, who lost the general election to Toomey.

Despite the book's sexism and self-pity, Life Among the Cannibals is a compelling work. While it's not as effective as Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain in examining the GOP's increased investment in irrationality, it works as an impassioned call for the return of moderation to the party. As Specter notes:

People are... entitled to affordable health care. And to Medicaid and Medicare. And to a Department of Education and an Environmental Protection Agency. Some argue that the federal government's role should be limited to establishing post roads and an army and a navy; the Constitution says nothing about an air force. But inherent in the Constitution is the notion that a civilized society must provide a social safety net.

The Tea Party continues to wobble the Republican Party, toppling viable centrist candidates, and to damage the country. The movement's antitax, pro-entitlement crusade may have found its embodiment in the irate man who demanded at a town hall meeting, 'I don't want the government messing with my Medicare!'

Shortly after Specter announced his party switch, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe declared that his departure was a warning sign for the GOP:

"We can't continue to fold our philosophical tent into an umbrella under which only a select few are worthy to stand. Rather, we should view an expansion of diversity within the party as a triumph that will broaden our appeal. That is the political road map we must follow to victory."

Of course, Snowe is on her way out of the Senate, continuing the sad exodus Specter laments:

[T]he rise of political extremism in recent decades poses a new, or amplified, threat to the United States. The fringes have displaced tolerance with purity tests and continue purging centrists, with senators campaigning against colleagues and even caucus mates in what sometimes seems a cannibalistic frenzy. Bob Bennett, Joe Lieberman, Mike Castle -- and nearly Lisa Murkowski -- and I are among a growing body count. The word 'extremism' is no longer sufficiently extreme to describe what's going on. The quest for ideological purity is destroying comity and compromise and bringing our government -- literally -- to a standstill.

Life Among the Cannibals could get things moving again.