06/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How the Right Left the Center; or Arlen Specter and the Silent Majority Revisited

Let me make this perfectly clear -- Arlen Specter didn't jump; he got pushed. And by forcing Pennsylvania's long-time moderate senator to change party affiliation, today's Republicans continue their perversely self-destructive trashing of Richard Nixon's most enduring legacy to the party.

In the 1960 presidential election, Nixon had faced a nearly impossible challenge. Forget about the stubble, jowls, and sweaty upper-lip, or the reports of vote fraud in Chicago and Texas. Nixon's real obstacle was the Republican party's inability to capture the imagination and loyalty of mainstream America. Only three out of ten voters identified themselves as Republicans, while nearly five out of ten said they were Democrats. More than anyone else, Richard Nixon worked to alter this dynamic. By soliciting the support of the white working-class, people who had been loyal Democrats since the New Deal, Nixon spoke boldly of crafting a New American Majority. Come election day 1972, Nixon had secured a 61 percent landslide victory, with one exit poll suggesting that he had stripped away at least 36 percent of the Democrats' base of support. In eight short years, Nixon had taken a GOP sourly lecturing that "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue" and had made it, on the national level at least, a place for Democratic moderates who felt deserted by their party.

Nixon's political groundwork made possible the renaissance conservatives enjoyed beginning in the 1980s. Historian James T. Patterson's description of the key elements of Reagan's winning coalition -- "white blue-collar workers, southern white foes of civil rights, Republicans who had opposed big government, and socially conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants" -- sounds like language that could have been cribbed from Nixon's 1972 campaign strategy memos.

One of the Republicans' greatest allies in this shift was, ironically, Democrats who allowed themselves to appear as the party of far-left elitism, removed from, and uninterested in, the concerns of the average American. Through much of the conservative revolution, feckless liberals couldn't fathom the sea-change that had occurred and kept making excuses why Reagan's victory was a fluke, repeating their old platitudes in the vain hope that the verities of the liberal consensus still held true.

Now, through the first one hundred days of the Obama administration, the GOP seems in the early stages of this same kind of self-marginalization. First there's the abandonment of the center for the ideological fringes. With a newly-inaugurated president inheriting a massive economic crisis and reaching out for broad-based support, Republicans responded with knee-jerk, short-sighted partisanship, as in the stimulus package and budget debates; petty maliciousness, as in the Rush Limbaugh "I hope he fails" episode; and dangerous silliness, as witnessed in Governor Rick Perry's supportive words for Texans who want to secede from the United States.

And just as with the old Reagan-era Democrats, today's Republicans try to deny that the political landscape has changed. Citing a Pew Research Center poll showing a 61 percent difference between the approval ratings given to the new president by Republicans compared to Democrats, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson labored to paint Barack Obama as "the most polarizing president of recent times." But degrees of polarity are not so much the issue here as are the massive defections that have turned Gerson's GOP has become the incredible shrinking party. The very same Pew Research Center also tells us that, since 2004, Republicans have driven away nearly 25 percent of their support. And these newly-minted independents joining together with Democrats are giving Obama higher approval marks than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton received at this point in their presidencies. Gerson is right to find the numbers regarding Republican disapproval of Obama to be striking. But they tell us much less about the president than they do about the ideological vehemence and extremism of the right-wing faction that the GOP threatens to become.

And now there's the Specter defection. Faced with a state party that has swung so far right that it would rather nominate Pat Toomey in the primary than win the general election, Specter lamented the GOP's abandonment of the political center, declaring "I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy." Here is a figure of considerable political stature who provided the party years of faithful service (remember Anita Hill?). That Arlen Specter no longer feels the GOP to be a hospitable place ought to give Republican operatives what the writer David Foster Wallace used to call the "howling fan-tods." The signs suggest that Pennsylvania is likely to stay blue for a while to come.

Such a momentous transformation could have inspired, if not some self-reflection, at least a re-assessment of strategy. But the best the National Republican Senate Committee could manage was a poison-pen robo-call sent last week to Pennsylvania's registered Democratic voters. Under the guise of helping prepare Democrats to welcome Specter into their party, "Jack," the recorded announcer, declares the NRSC's desire "to make sure that we properly introduced [Specter] to you." What followed were audio clips of George W. Bush, campaigning for Specter in 2004, celebrating him as a "firm ally," and of Specter himself asserting his independence, refusing to "be an automatic sixtieth vote" in the Democrat's ruling majority. Given the call's target audience, the NRSC seems to be trying to influence the make-up of the Senate primary race in Pennsylvania by getting Democrats to reject Specter. The oddness of the strategy, which amounts to an admission that Specter's been driven out of his true home, is exceeded only by the incompetence of the appeal. At the call's opening, "Jack" refers to Specter as a new "Democrat Senator," engaging in Republican hard-liners' juvenile refusal to use the word "Democratic." The point may seem small, but it involves a basic form of courtesy and respect: individuals and groups get to name themselves. If Democrats call their party the Democratic party and their Senators Democratic Senators, then that's the name. That the NRSC was willing to risk the effectiveness of the entire ad just to take one more opportunity to annoy and insult the very people they supposedly wanted to persuade speaks eloquently of just how clueless the Republicans are at this moment.

Richard Nixon understood that the key to moving the country rightward and constructing and maintaining a Republican majority was making sure he held on to the political center. It was a strategy that worked well for nearly forty years. If the current leadership doesn't wake up and realize why it is that Barack Obama is winning the battle for today's independent and moderates, an increasingly clueless GOP threatens to relegate itself to political irrelevance.