Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Will Arlen Specter Really Help the Democrats?

The defection of Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter to the Democratic Party caught a lot of people in the national news media by surprise. But for many observers in Pennsylvania, it was just a matter of time before it happened.

In fact, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Sally Kalson offered this op-ed column,
Abandon Ship, Arlen back in February.

Why bother fighting to stay in a party that seems determined to self-destruct, marching ever rightward even as the country moves in the opposite direction?

Does the senator really feel he still belongs in a group that has purged so many moderates from its ranks, that considers it apostasy to work with majority Democrats in addressing the worst economic train wreck since the Great Depression?

Is it possible the time has come for Mr. Specter to disassociate himself from the flaming-torches-and-pitchforks crowd? Should he, at long last, switch allegiance, if not to the Democratic party then to run as an Independent?

But the handwriting was on the wall, especially after Specter’s vote for President Obama’s stimulus program produced a vicious backlash from conservative Republicans who vowed to see him defeated in next year’s Republican primary.

And when Specter saw that he was trailing badly in the polls to former Representative Patrick Toomey whom he barely beat for the Republican nomination last time he ran, he knew that running for reelection as a Republican would be hopeless. Making the decision easier was the massive number of Pennsylvanians who switched their registration last year to be able to vote in the state’s Democratic presidential primary election. The Republicans who remain in the party are more solidly conservative and would not likely support a moderate like Specter.

So it’s fair to say that Senator Specter’s change of party was far more about him winning reelection than any love of the Democratic Party.

And while President
Obama Welcomes Specter to the Party, clearly the expectations by many are a bit much.

The defection of Mr. Specter creates the potential for Democrats to control 60 votes in the Senate if Al Franken prevails this summer in the court fight over last November’s Minnesota Senate election, in which repeated recounts gave him a slight edge over the Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman, that has stood up in litigation so far.

If Democrats could hold those 60 votes together, Republicans would be unable to mount filibusters as Congress moves into the critical phase of acting on Mr. Obama’s ambitious agenda on health care and energy. A last line of defense against a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House would thereby be eliminated.

“This is transformative,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. “It’s game-changing.”

Is it? I’m not so sure. Just because a politician now has a ‘D’ after his name instead of an ‘R’ doesn’t mean that he is going to change his political philosophies.

Although Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele attacked Specter for his “left-wing voting record”, many of Specter’s positions are in line with orthodox Republican ideology. Although he is well known for his pro-choice stand on abortion rights, he has reiterated his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act angering labor officials. And he has supported the Iraq War along with the Supreme Court nominations of President Bush.

But what about health care? Some have speculated that Specter will be sympathetic to President Obama’s attempts to reform health care because of his recent public battles with cancer. However, I attended a Town Meeting in 2007 hosted by Senator Specter as I recount in a previous posting
Why Not Medicare for Everybody?.

A number of passionate people asked questions of the Senator on when we can expect help from the government to address what is rapidly becoming a health care crisis in America. While he said that something needed to be done, he firmly declared that the government shouldn’t be getting involved in health insurance — which immediately got a huge ovation from much of the crowd.

Specter himself has said that he will not be an automatic part of a Democratic 60 vote Senate majority to defeat Republican filibusters. Indeed as one who doesn’t mind attracting attention to himself, going against the Democratic Party on occasion may well be an opportunity for him to be in the spotlight just like he did while with the Republicans.

So while Democrats are pleased that Senator Specter has publicly given the Republicans a black eye, will he really help the Democrats as much as everybody expects him to? Or will this be another example of why people, in this case the Democrats, should be careful what they wish for?

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