Tuesday, April 28, 2009

notes on the Specter switch

1. Experience is a harsh teacher. For the last several election cycles, Republicans have been a lot dumber about primaries than Democrats, but they've never paid for it like this. When Democrats primary their incumbents, they typically have done it in districts where the incumbent is either a) corrupt and universally unliked, or b) significantly more conservative/pro-Bush than the district as a whole. You want your primary contender to have the best possible chance of winning without giving the other party an opening. This is why, for instance, the Democrats never mount serious liberal primary challenges to people like Nebraska's Ben Nelson, a very conservative Democrat in a very conservative state. You take what you can get.

In the case of Pennsylvania, however, for the second time the Republicans have floated a hardline challenger against a moderate in a moderate state. The first time Specter barely survived; this time, with a GOP electorate freshly (and heavily) pared of its moderates, Specter was dead in the water, down some 20 points in recent polls to Pat Toomey. What was their long strategy? Do they really expect Toomey to win a statewide election in a state that endured several months of thorough soaking by the McCain campaign and still voted for Obama by 10 points, a state previously won by Kerry, Gore and Clinton? Need I remind you how well the last hard right Republican performed in a senate election in Pennsylvania?

This was pure electoral strategy for Specter. He was not going to survive his primary, and Pennsylvania has a "sore loser" law that bars defeated primary contenders from running in the general as independents a la Joe Lieberman. He could have gone Independent before the primary, but would have faced significant structural disadvantages endemic to running independent campaigns. Defecting was probably his only viable strategy. It's just more proof that Specter is the most typical of politicians, utterly lacking in principles or convictions, with one very big exception: he's avidly pro-reelection.

2. This was a huge failure for one person in particular: RNC chairman Michael Steele, who thought the answer to catastrophic electoral losses is to bring the hammer down on the few remaining moderates. The last three Republican senate moderates got spooked a couple of months ago when Steele went all "yer with us 'er agin' us" on them, implying that he would seek to primary senators who voted for the stimulus. He even threatened to withhold RNC funds from them, a particularly nasty threat since the RNC is the only fundraising vehicle they have that can keep pace with the Democrats now. This signals a dramatic departure from standard party practice, and it did not go over well.

Well, Michael, what did you expect them to do?

Steele is a year and a half away from his first election as RNC chair, and he's already lost a Senate seat and a House seat, and has all but assuredly handed the Democrats their first filibuster-proof majority since the Carter Administration, just in time for the new administration to pass a sweeping agenda.

3. Here's another fun little clusterf**k for the GOP: they can't redistribute Specter's committee seats until the full Senate, including the Democrats passes a new organizing resolution. Until then, the Democrats essentially get a free seat. One of those seats is Arlen's favorite: the Judiciary Committee, which reviews Obama's judiciary nominees. It's now 12-7 in favor of the Democrats until the new resolution. Another of his seats is in Appropriations. Democrats can stall on this as long as they want, while untold important matters pass through those committees, and even better, some people are now pressuring the Democrats to refuse any resolution unless and until the Republicans drop their court battle against seating Al Franken.


4. The big winner on this deal: Vice President Joe Biden, who apparently was the front man in the effort to convert Specter. More proof that Obama is a better decision-maker than I am.

5. Specter's jump appears to have profoundly affected Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who's probably the most liberal Republican in the Senate, and actually quite close ideologically to the Blue Dog Democrats. She isn't under any electoral threat (she's not up until 2012), but she's clearly voicing some serious discontent with the GOP right now. After Judd Gregg retires next year, she and fellow Mainer Collins will likely be the only Republican senators between Quebec and North Carolina. You've gotta think she's wondering right about now what exactly she has in common with all these southern-fried hateful bigots.


Rene said...

my thoughts:

Specter's voting pattern is unlikely to dramatically change. He already supported the stimulus despite the howling of his party, and he'll continue to be a war hawk.

His cloture vote decisions will be interesting, but at least the math may persuade Harry Reid to freakin call a filibuster bluff now and again.

Specter will need some serious image rehab after this move though, as the right wing and mainstream media have been crowing about his lack of "principles" since this broke.

Pensyltucky was already going to vote against him, but now he'll need the liberal votes that come from the city to keep him afloat.

hey, maybe we can get healthcare done! I had my fingers burnt up over the weekend, and its costing me a freaking fortune.

el ranchero said...

Ouch! What happened?

As far as his voting goes, I'm of the opinion that the whips matter. People's voting patterns do tend to shift when they undergo party shifts. It happened to Shelby, it happened to Jeffords, and it's very likely to happen at least in some capacity to Specter. After all, how many times have we seen Specter grandstand about the Rule of Law or torture or whatever, only to fall in line with Bush when it's actually time to come to a vote? Independence takes courage, and Arlen Specter's always been a little short in that department.

And he doesn't have Ben Nelson's excuse that he represents a deeply red state.

My expectation is that Specter will stay true to the one or two issues he has really strong opinions on, and will defer to the Democrats on the others.

You're right about image rehab, though. He took some serious hits for this, and furthermore there's no guarantee as of yet that he will escape a Democratic primary. Sure, he has all the institutional support, but he's still potentially vulnerable against a dark horse from Paul Wellstone's "Democratic wing of the Democratic party" in a state as blue as PA.