It's been about a week since formerly Republican Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party, and already we've forgotten about it. Swine flu has infected the media once again, and the news about the veteran Senator's team change is a distant memory, lining our wastebaskets. The pundits are still discussing it briefly, but mostly in the framework of how to revamp the GOP. Specter the Defector gave up on the GOP, however, before it had a chance to remodel itself, though the truth of the matter is that Specter's switch may end up eventually putting the GOP back on top.
Arlen Specter's switch had little to do with ideology or feeling more "aligned" with the Dems; no, it's simpler than that. He wanted to win. Early polling showed Specter losing to GOP Primary challenger Pat Toomey by more than 20 points, and the Senator's statement indicated that his switch to the Dems had more to do with winning the election in Pennsylvania than anything else. Hey, nobody likes to lose, right? How noble politics are in 2009. Oh my!
Senator Specter also stated that he would not be "an automatic 60th vote" for President Obama's ambitious policy agenda. Given, however, that he seems to prioritize winning elections over his morals and beliefs - and the fact that he will desperately need Obama's support for future elections - we can expect the Senator's "moderate" stance to creep left from this point forward. With the (painfully prolonged) expected win of Democrat Al Franken, it makes sense that we should classify this as a huge win for the Dems, right? Not so fast.
Arlen Specter's switch will have two effects. One, the Republican Party is being forced to reevaluate the direction in which they are moving, which in retrospect they should have done this after Senator Jim Jeffords jumped ship eight years ago. Now with Specter's switch taking place in the Obama era, the GOP will almost surely consider a makeover that will lead to shift away from the far right and more towards the middle. Republicans are learning that basing their principles upon ideological morals is only leading to a further weakening of power. Old school Republicans will tell you that "social conservatism" is one of the tenets of their party, but facts show that welcoming and including moderates as part of their team is integral to their survival.
The second outcome of Specter's switch is that, with a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate, the Dems will be able to take full control on virtually all policy issues. Perhaps Specter will, as he claims, remain a moderate and not vote on party lines. However, his very switch is representative of the fact that this will likely not be the case, especially with major policy decisions. One of his main reasons for switching parties was to keep his Senate seat, and to attain this goal - now as a Democrat - his best bet is to garner as much support from President Obama as he can. Specter has been a supporter of medical research and care, and will undoubtedly vote for Obama's health care plan. New policies on health care have had a history of failures and have been problematic in their implementation on both a state and federal level.
With a filibuster-proof senate and a thus relatively painless passage health care and other significant legislation, Democrats will be to blame for their shortcomings and failures.
In addition, Democrats will no longer be able to blame Republicans for the blockage of policy initiatives. Instead, legislation will make it all the way through to Obama's signature, and the whole world will be watching as they take effect, pass or fail. Republicans and their pundits will have the time of their lives scrutinizing, dissecting, and criticizing every single policy measure, and Democrats will spend even more time on the defense. In the long term, this will have a significant and damaging effect on the power that Democrats are enjoying in the Senate and elsewhere.
While we should expect the 2010 Midterm elections to stay in Obama's favor, a Republican party reevaluating itself and presumably moving more to the middle combined with the inevitable negative consequences of having a filibuster-proof Senate will lead to an eventual swing of the party-politics-pendulum to the right. So, before we label Specter's move as the best "100th Day gift" the Obama administration could ask for, perhaps we should take a closer and more of a long term view. After all, a gift can also be a curse.