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The Specter Switch: The Incredible Shrinking Republican Party

06/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Lanny Davis Principal, Lanny J. Davis and Associates LLC

"We are not losing blue states and shrinking as a party because we are not conservative enough. If we pursue a party that has no place for someone who agrees with me 70 percent of the time, that is based on an ideological purity test rather than a coalition test, then we are going to keep losing."

-- Sen. Lindsay Graham, South Carolina Republican

When I read Mr. Graham's comment last week regarding the switch to the Democratic Party by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, I was reminded of one of my favorite movies from my pre-teen years, the 1957 movie classic, "The Incredible Shrinking Man."

It's about a man who is exposed to a combination of radiation and insecticide and slowly begins to shrink. By the end of the movie, he has become so small that the his wife puts him in a cage to protect him from their house cat and then, at the end of the movie, he is tragically washed down the drain of his sink.

The Republican Party cannot blame radiation and insecticide for its shrinkage. Sooner or later it will have to face up to the reality that its problems are not a result of bad political strategy or communications, the current most popular self-deluding rationalizations. Rather, the shrinkage is primarily due to two facts about the current Religious-Right dominated Republican Party: unpopular ideas and bad attitudes.

First, polls show that the Religious Right's views on the social issues are not in accord with the views of growing majorities of moderate Republicans and independents, the key swing voters who decide general elections. Indeed, the recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed a plurality of all Americans for the first time now support gay marriage. And second, these swing voters are increasingly alienated by the intolerance of the Religious Right and their insistence on 100 percent agreement on these social issues.

As Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the few remaining Republican moderates in the Senate, wrote last week after the Specter announcement:

There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority party while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party -- it was when we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of our basic tenets that we encountered an electoral backlash.

After Mr. Specter's switch, it looks likely that Pennsylvania Republicans will nominate in 2010 former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, who is the very type of Republican who has most alienated moderates and independents and, thus, the least electable. Accordingly, Pennsylvania is a virtually certain Democratic pick-up in 2010, whether that Democrat is Mr. Specter or someone else.

There is a vague déjà vu for me in seeing the right taking down a Republican lawmaker who voted 70 percent of the time with his party's Senate colleagues. I am reminded of how the Democratic left treated incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in 2006. Mr. Lieberman had voted with his fellow Democrats not 70 percent of the time, but 90 percent of the time. Yet he was opposed by the Democratic left and lost a close race for the party's nomination in the 2006 primary. But he went on to win as an independent in the general election by a substantial margin.

While Mr. Lieberman offended many liberals by his support for the Iraq war, the fact is, on all the critical domestic litmus test issues, he had, indisputably, one of the most liberal voting records in the congress: pro-choice, pro-labor (including the so-called "card check" bill), pro-social spending programs, pro-environmental regulation, pro-civil rights and affirmative action, pro-women's rights and gay rights, and so on.

And yet, despite this record, the left, particularly on the most hateful liberal blogs, continues to hate him and mischaracterize him as a conservative and are planning to oppose him again if he chooses to run again in 2010.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, whose liberalism and intelligence I admire, rarely misses a chance to criticize Mr. Lieberman, sometimes with very personal overtones. But she never mentions or credits his liberal voting record, including his support for President Obama in the first 100 days.

So once again we see the irony that the sanctimonious far right and the sanctimonious far left seem to have more in common than with their fellow conservatives and liberals, respectively. Clearly they agree that it is better to lose a general election and win a primary than to allow any variation from what they define as true conservatism or true liberalism.

Meanwhile, back to the Senate's newest Democrat: Mr. Specter did not have an auspicious beginning in his career as a Democratic senator. His first major vote was cast against Mr. Obama's budget, which is a fundamental blueprint for the Obama presidency and his electoral mandate.

That may not be a great start for Mr. Specter in the eyes of many Pennsylvania Democrats, who believe in Mr. Obama and want a senator they can rely on to support the core programs of the Obama administration. For this reason, it would be understandable if Mr. Specter has a Democratic primary opponent -- at the very least, to remind him of political accountability if he opposes a Democratic president on his fundamental priorities.

I would not be surprised if that opponent is Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral who is a true liberal Democrat but also has national defense credentials and a centrist/consensus-building instinct.

Mr. Sestak represents Pennsylvania's 7th District, in the suburbs and exurbs of Philadelphia. In 2006 he defeated a seemingly invulnerable and popular 10-term Republican, Rep. Curt Weldon, by a 12-point margin. In 2008 he expanded his margin, winning by 20 points.

Mr. Sestak's congressional district is a microcosm not only of Pennsylvania but in large part of the nation -- moderate suburbs, exurban and rural conservatives, blue collar workers (from oil refineries and defense plants), and college towns and communities, such as those surrounding Swarthmore, Haverford, Villanova and Cheney.

In a Democratic primary, Mr. Sestak has great appeal to the liberal base as well as centrist, national defense Democrats, even if the president keeps his word and campaigns for Mr. Specter in the Democratic Pennsylvania primary. I predict that if Mr. Sestak runs for the nomination against Mr. Specter -- and that is a big "if" in light of the Senator's endorsements by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. -- Mr. Sestak will win the primary and go on to defeat Mr. Toomey by a landslide.

You read it here first.

Another prediction: the incredibly shrinking Republican Party will find a way to shrink even further, as it expends even more energy in an intra-party civil war between the far right and the far, far-right. The result: after the 2010 congressional elections, Democrats will have a filibuster-proof Senate majority with 62 or 63 members.

Stay tuned.

Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of Scandal: How "Gotcha" Politics Is Destroying America.

This article appeared in Mr. Davis' weekly column, "Purple Nation," in the Washington Times. It also appeared in The Hill's Pundits Blog and on The Fox Forum.