Specter Backs Himself into the Corner Again -- This Time with Democrats

06/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Like most Democrats, I was pretty tickled to watch Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) defect from the Republican Party and join our team last week. Aside from that sometimes important 60-seat thingee, it was again a brutal reminder of the spiral death trap that has consumed the GOP since the 2004 election (beginning with the 2005 special election between Jean Schmidt and Paul Hackett, which we narrowly lost but where we started to believe again), giving me some real hope that we will get to witness the first formal disintegration of a major political party in 150 years.

Clearly, Specter realized that the ever-shrinking GOP has caused moderates to float away, leaving its fanatical right-wing base as its unrestrained center of gravity. Be mindful that Pennsylvania has a closed primary, meaning those hundreds of thousands of moderate Republicans-turned Democrats last year can't help him in the GOP primary. And, unlike Connecticut, it also has a "sore loser" law preventing Specter from losing the primary and then running in the general like Joe Lieberman did.

As such, Specter had no choice but to either lurch right to win the primary, likely ensuring he'd have no chance of winning the general election (as John McCain did), or simply defecting now and cutting a deal with Democrats to be their candidate, likely allowing him to by-pass a brutal primary and go straight to a general election where he'd trounce former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-PA), or any other GOP comer they'd offer up. That seemed the most likely outcome last week, if Specter would simply play ball just enough to ensure that appreciative Democrats would support him as their general election nominee.

Instead, and in stunning rapid-fire succession over just a few days, Specter has quickly backed himself in the very corner with the partisans in his own (newly-adopted) party who he must count on to get him into the general election.

First, Specter immediately voted against President Obama's budget. Then over the weekend, Specter incomprehensibly insisted that he never told Obama he would be a "loyal Democrat." Now, he's apparently still rooting for former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) to miraculously win the Minnesota Senate race and deprive Democrats of that expected 60-seat majority. He's also since stated his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act and a public option on health care reform.

Until this weekend, I was generally supportive of Specter as the Democratic nominee next year. Now, after twice giving Democrats the finger in 48 hours, my feelings are rapidly evolving. While I have no love for the pompous and seemingly self-righteous Blue Dog Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) who continues to make noise about challenging Specter -- despite promises from Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), and the DSCC to fully support Specter -- I might be able to live with the know-it-all Sestak after all.

Ultimately, it seems to me that Specter (like Lieberman) is a little too enamored with his independence of political parties and ideology. No doubt, he's an infinitely better general election candidate than a primary candidate (for either party). But the obvious problem with that position is that those very hardcore partisans -- which Specter seems to have ample contempt for -- have disproportionate weight in those things called primaries. Unless you run as an independent, you must get your party's imprimatur before heading into the general election. Specter seems to resent that. The problem for Specter is that Democrats have no love for him. We only like him now because he dumped the other guy who we loathe. Yet, he acts as if he's become our new savior.

Finally, there is every reason to believe that Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) was, in fact, correct about one thing: namely that Democrats are likely to gain an additional net of four Senate seats in 2010. Translation: We don't need Specter next year. We need him now.

Democrats are now well past the point where we need to kiss the asses of Lieberman-type candidates to propel us into the majority. We're there (and need to keep working hard to stay there). In 2006, Democrats were in sole need of more elected Democrats and we willingly embraced Blue Dogs to win the majority. In 2008, we wanted more Democrats but finally began to focus on better Democrats. In 2010, our focus is likely to be overwhelmingly about quality Democrats. We don't need to coddle Specter because he's likely to be no more than one seat in a 63+ member caucus. At best, he'll be another Joe Lieberman. At worst, he'll be Lieberman without the solid progressive philosophy on domestic issues (Lieberman mainly sucks on foreign policy and defense issues, not social/domestic issues.).

So, keep a close eye on Specter. If the guy doesn't shape-up very quickly and start acting like a reasonably loyal member of his political party, he should not be surprised if loyal members of that political party opt for someone else next year.

But even more importantly, Obama should be very concerned about expending political energy to help elect someone who doesn't care about the party whose nomination he seeks. We all largely bit our tongues when Obama magnanimously chose to allow Lieberman to retain his committee chairmanship after the November elections. But we're not very likely to do so if he tries to force feed us a candidate opposed to some many of our priorities because it seems quite likely we can win the race without him (especially if Toomey is the GOP nominee).

Sadly, Specter has backed himself into the very same corner once again. The only difference is that this corner is painted blue, not red. Hopefully, Obama is paying attention...

Update (11:03 pm ET): Not sure if this is a clear rebuke by Senate Democrats for Specter's actions of the past few days or if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made some promises to Specter that he simply couldn't deliver on with his caucus, but Specter's bid to keep his committee senority was denied this evening, as he clearly expected last week during his press conference. Big news.

Mark Nickolas is the Managing Editor of Political Base, and this story was from his original post, "Specter Backs Himself Into The Corner Again, This Time With Democrats. Is Obama Paying Attention?"