In what will certainly be the biggest political story to cap off the first 100 days of the Obama administration, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) has announced he will be switching parties. Once Al Franken is seated in Minnesota, an inevitability expected to happen shortly, the Democratic party will have a 60 seat, filibuster-proof majority.
Specter was one of three Republicans in Congress to vote for President Obama's stimulus package, an issue that caused a split with his party that Specter described in a statement as "irreconcilable." In the wake of his vote, RNC Chairman Michael Steele suggested that Republicans who didn't tow the party line might not be supported in their re-election. Not long after, Pat Toomey, former president of the Club for Growth, announced his intention to challenge Specter in the 2010 Republican primary. Most polls showed Specter trailing by double-digits. As a moderate Republican who had sided with Obama, Specter's re-election appeared incredibly unlikely.
Specter's decisions to switch parties was based, above all else, on survival. Specter will almost assuredly claim the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat in 2010, and should defeat Toomey easily in a general election matchup in a state where Obama won by ten points. But whatever the personal politics, the most significant consequence of his decision will be the events it sets in motion.
Sure, it's true that Specter's decision will have a much smaller impact on the political agenda than Jim Jeffords' decision in 2001. When Jeffords left the Republican party, the GOP lost control of the Senate. That isn't the case here. It is also true that Specter has voted with the Democrats often, and that as a Democrat, he will often break ranks to vote with the GOP. Some will consequently argue that the actual change that's occurred here is relatively minor. Yes, there are now 60 Democratic senators, but if you can't guarantee that all those Democrats will break the filibuster, is it really better than having 59?
It is. It very much is.
Arlen Specter will be catered to by the Democratic caucus, behind closed doors. Where he has concerns, the party will work closely with him to resolve them. It is far more likely that a negotiation that begins and ends among friends will yield a more productive result than a negotiation that, prior to today, had to be hammered out among adversaries. By virtue of having Specter as part of the caucus, Democrats will be better capable of earning his vote.
Specter's voting record will start to change, as well. Though his record suggests a political philosophy not entirely aligned with either party, in his long career, he has no doubt had to cast votes to appease the Republican base, even when he disagreed. Without a doubt, not having the increasingly fringe-prone Republican base to worry about will liberalize Specter on a number of issues.
There is a broader value as well. Specter's story will dominate the news cycle for days, if not weeks; during that time, he will no doubt have opportunities to explain himself publicly. When he does, he will say that the Republican party of which he was a lifetime member is no longer. That a conservatism based on reason and rationality can no longer exist under the conspiracy-driven, anti-intellectual senselessness that has come to define the circus tent of the Republican party.
A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that only 21% of the country self-identifies as Republican. That's almost half as many as call themselves Independents. The reality is striking - all over the country, people are walking away from a GOP that is collapsing in on itself.
Arlen Specter is now the highest profile among them.