The departure of Arlen Specter looks very bad for the GOP. You never want to lose anyone. But could Senate Republicans have stopped it? No, not once it became clear that he was going to be trounced in his primary. Specter’s problem is not the party in the sense of its leadership or direction, but rather with the Republican voters in Pennsylvania.
Arlen Specter switched from Democrat to Republican in 1965 so that he could win an election. He is now doing the reverse for precisely the same reason.
If we take Arlen Specter’s word for why he is leaving, we have to accept the idea that the stimulus vote represented some kind of huge turning point for him. In fact, Specter’s apostasy on that vote was less remarkable than several others — for example, his vote on the Employee Free Choice Act, or his courageous refusal to vote either “yes” or “no” on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The reason the stimulus vote matters is that it matters to voters and has become an issue in the primary — which again, is the only reason Specter is leaving the Republican Party.
If we take Specter’s word, then the GOP has become intolerant of moderate politicians like himself. On this score, Specter appears to have a severe case of amnesia. Exactly five years ago, the national Republican Party swooped into Pennsylvania and saved him from certain defeat at the hands of Rep. Pat Toomey (R). Valuable presidential time was sacrificed on his behalf. Also sacrificed for Arlen Specter was the reputation of his conservative colleague, Rick Santorum (R), who never recovered. From that moment forward, he lost his core constituency, and was easily defeated two years later by a pro-life Democrat.
Without essential help from the party that is so intolerant of people like him, Arlen Specter would already be a former senator today. It is not the party but the voters in Pennsylvania who have stopped tolerating Specter.
If we take Specter’s word, then conservatives act in bad faith when they become involved in the political process and try to elect the candidates of their choice. Conservatives should disengage from the political process and stop challenging people like Arlen Specter. They should not organize — whether through groups like the Club for Growth or otherwise — nor should they participate in the political process, nor donate to nor vote for candidates they prefer.
Specter noted this afternoon that the Club worked against several moderates, including Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R, R.I.), who won his primary but lost his general election in 2006. Chafee did not even vote for President Bush in 2004, but like Specter he received a great deal of money and help from the Republican Party in his primary.
Reps. Joe Schwarz (R, Mich.) and Wayne Gilchrest (R, Md.) are two moderate victims of the Club for Growth whom Specter mentioned today. They were not being sore losers, but rather acted in good faith when they lost their respective primaries to conservatives and then turned around and endorsed the Democratic nominee in the general election. (Note that when he lost to Specter in 2004, Pat Toomey endorsed him immediately.) Conservatives must be team players in the GOP, but if moderates behave differently, we blame the conservatives who challenge them for subsequent disunity and defeat.
What is funny is that without any action so far by the Club for Growth, social conservatives, or anyone else, Republican voters in Pennsylvania have been lining up to end Specter’s career, as the polls demonstrate. That is why Specter does not want to be judged by them. It is the only reason he has left the party.