06/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wanted: A Pennsylvania Ned Lamont to Defeat Arlen Specter in 2010 Democratic Primary

We already have one Joe Lieberman caucusing with the Senate Democrats. Frankly, adding another member to the Lieberman center/right corporate wing of the Senate Democratic caucus by changing the letter "R" to the letter "D" after the name Arlen Specter (Sen.-Penn.) leaves me less than thrilled.

Despite simplistic press accounts, Specter himself made it clear on "Meet The Press" Sunday that notwithstanding his switch in party affiliation to protect his seat, he can't even be counted on as the 60th vote to break Republican filibusters of President Obama's programs.

OK, I couldn't help but take some pleasure from Specter's defection--It represents one more symbol in the demise of the contemporary Republican Party and the devolution of Karl Rove's "permanent Republican majority" into a southern regional extremist right-wing rump party that may spend the next generation in the national political wilderness.

But one of the effects of national Republican Party's self-immolation is that the most important political divisions--those which will have the greatest impact on the pace of social change in coming years--are less between Republicans and Democrats, and more between center/right corporate Democrats and center/left progressive Democrats.

Nowhere was this divide in the Democratic Party clearer than in last week's vote on the bankruptcy reform bill, in which 12 Democratic Senators (including the newly minted Democratic Sen. Specter) opposed President Obama and joined with the banking lobby and 40 Republican Senator's to prevent bankruptcy judges from modifying the terms of certain underwater mortgages to let people stay in their homes.

In this past election, we won the fight for a Democratic majority. We now need to win the fight for a progressive majority who will stand up for the interests of the American people over the corporate lobbyists and their millions in campaign contributions.

I'm pragmatic enough to accept that maintaining a Democratic majority requires some diversity in the Democratic Party. The same candidate cannot necessarily win a Democratic seat in Nebraska or North Dakota as in Massachusetts or California. But to bring about the fundamental change that the country requires and that the Obama campaign symbolized, we need, wherever practically possible, to reduce the number of Congressional and Senate corporate-run Blue Dog Democrats who often oppose progressive change and increase the number who lead the fight for it. We don't need Blue Dog Democratic Senators in relatively safe Democratic states like Connecticut (where Lieberman lost the Democratic primary but narrowly retained his seat only because there was a 3-way race), New York (where unfortunately Gov. Patterson appointed Blue Dog Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate and where there will hopefully be a viable progressive Democrat to oppose her in the Democratic primary in 2010), nor in increasingly Blue Pennsylvania.

There is no reason why switching parties to save his own political skin should guarantee that the latest Blue Dog Democratic Senator, 79-year old Arlen Specter, will keep his Senate seat for the next 8 years, nor that there will be no serious challenge to Specter from what Howard Dean called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" in the 2010 Pennsylvania Democratic Primary.

The Pennsylvania Democratic establishment, the Senate Democratic leadership, and even President Obama may have seen short-term political advantage in cutting a deal with Specter to support him in the 2010 Democratic primary, and to try to clear the field of serious opposition.

But as Obama's own Presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton demonstrated, we no longer live in an age of political inevitability, nor one in which the party establishment can necessarily successfully dictate to Democratic primary voters whom their candidate will be. In this age of increasing grassroots activism and online fundraising, there is ample room for insurgent campaigns to succeed.

What's needed in the 2010 Pennsylvania Democratic Primary is a Pennsylvania equivalent of Ned Lamont, who, despite the opposition of the state and national Democratic party establishment, and after starting out with a double-digit deficit in the polls, defeated conservative Democrat Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic Primary. Lieberman only retained his Senate seat by running as an independent in a 3-way race in which he received 70% of the Republican vote and only 33% of the Democratic vote.

If Specter were to lose the 2010 Pennsylvania Democratic Primary to a more progressive challenger, he wouldn't have the same opportunity as Lieberman to run as an independent in a 3-way race. Pennsylvania has a so-called "sore loser" law which bars the loser in a major-party primary from running as an independent in the general election. If a more progressive Democratic challenger can defeat Specter in the Democratic primary, Specter's career in the Senate will likely be over.

And there's every reason why Pennsylvania Democrats should hope for a more genuinely Democratic Senate candidate in 2010 than Specter. Although he's changed the letter after his name from "R" to "D", there's little to indicate that he's changed his generally conservative views. He joins Joe Lieberman as among the most conservative Democrats in the Senate.

Specter's first vote as a newly-minted Democratic Senator was to oppose President Obama's budget. One of his next votes was to oppose the bankruptcy reform bill. Having shepherded the nominations of conservative Supreme Court justices Roberts and Alito through the Senate, he has made clear it that he feels no obligation to support President Obama's nominee to replace Justice Souter, or even to help break a Republican fillibuster.

Appearing on "Meet The Press" this Sunday, Specter repeated several times that "I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat". He strongly opposed the Employee Free Choice Act which would make it easier for workers to unionize and indicated that he may well support a Republican filibuster of that bill, as well as other Obama-supported legislation. While some have speculated that Specter cut a deal with the Obama administration to vote for health-care reform, he indicated that he would vote against, or even filibuster, a public option for health insurance (which even progressives who have joined President Obama in abandoning the fight for single payer health care see as the absolute bottom line for meaningful health-care reform). While Specter eventually voted for President Obama's stimulus bill, his price for doing so was to reduce the size of the stimulus package and to transfer more of the stimulus from spending to tax cuts, thus decreasing the number of jobs the stimulus bill is likely to create.

Do Pennsylvania Democrats really need 8 more years of this kind of "Democrat"? With Specter now a nominal Democrat, the likely 2010 Republican Pennsylvania nominee is the extreme right-wing former Congressman Pat Toomy who now heads the ultra-free market Club for Growth. Toomy's Congressional voting record also earned him a 100% rating from the Christian Coalition, an "A" from the National Rifle Association, and a 90% rating from the Chamber of Commerce. A Republican like Toomy might win a state-wide Senate election in a state like South Carolina or Mississippi. But as long as the Democratic candidate cannot easily be depicted as representing the most left-wing elements of the Democratic Party, just about any credible, moderately progressive, Democrat would likely handily defeat Toomy in an increasingly Blue Pennsylvania.

That's why Pennsylvania Senate seat cannot be wasted for the next 8 years on the center-right Specter who would be 86 when his next Senate term ends. Pennsylvania needs a Democratic Senator from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Pennsylvania needs its own version of Ned Lamont to run an insurgent grassroots campaign against the Democratic Party establishment, defeat Specter in the 2010 Democratic Primary, and win the Pennsylvania Senate seat for a real Democrat who will support a change agenda.