Arlen Specter, the Senate's mercurial moderate from Pennsylvania, predicted five years ago that his bid for a fifth term in 2004 would determine "if there's going to be any place in the Republican Party for a big tent." On Tuesday, the 79-year-old announced that the big tent that he located to shelter the twilight of his Senate career -- and what he hopes will be his sixth term -- belongs to the Democrats.
"As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party," he said in a calm, sometimes puckish, voice that betrayed none of the pain he suggested he felt as he bolted from the GOP. Specter, who penned a memoir titled Never Give In and boasts that he has survived a brain tumor, heart bypass surgery, deadly Hodgkin's lymphoma, and numerous close elections, was candid in acknowledging that switching parties was the only way he could avoid a Republican primary that he and his campaign pollster believed he would lose.
Always relishing the role of provocateur, the ex-prosecutor and former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman appeared delighted to occupy center stage. But Specter's press conference did more than just rivet Washington for an afternoon. It roiled the Senate and forced both parties to confront the critical challenges facing them: Will the Democrats do too much, and will the Republicans do too little?
If Democrats are able to use Specter's support and a favorable outcome in the Minnesota Senate race to produce the 60 votes needed to move controversial legislation past minority opposition, will they eventually overreach? Or can they leverage their significant Senate majority, the size of which neither party has enjoyed since 1978, to solidify voter support?
And will Republicans -- shrinking in numbers according to national polls and especially those in Pennsylvania -- probe Specter's defection as something more seismic and instructive than what some GOP cynics claim to see: one man's outsized ego leading to a form of political cross-dressing?
As both parties pondered the fallout this week, the initial Republican reaction was that Specter was an opportunistic, even selfish, freelancer -- and good riddance. It took a day, but Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, under pressure to win back seats as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tried to put a happy face on Specter's decision to leave the party he had joined in the mid-1960s. First, Cornyn noted, the GOP won't have to spend a lot of money defending Specter in a brutal primary.
More important, Cornyn suggested that after President Obama and the Democratic Congress, with Specter's help, pass a "left-wing agenda completely unchecked," most Americans will "shudder" and vote against Democratic dominance in Washington. "While Senator Specter's decision was indeed disappointing," Cornyn explained in a statement, "it did allow us to realize -- perhaps sooner than we would have liked -- the dangerous ramifications of unbridled, one-party rule in Washington. Come November 2010, this may ultimately be viewed as a positive development in the Republican Party's climb back to power."
In other words, Cornyn believes that Democrats, led by a popular president, will have to stumble in voters' eyes before Republicans can return to prominence. But Cornyn sidestepped the idea, pushed by the dwindling band of Republican moderates, that the GOP must assertively work to include more centrists in order to regain the majority and counter mounting evidence that theirs is becoming a regional party.
"I believe in the traditional tenets of the Republican Party -- strong national defense, fiscal responsibility, individual opportunity," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told reporters after Specter's announcement. "I haven't abandoned those principles that have been the essence of the Republican Party. I think the Republican Party has abandoned those principles." As one of the three Republican senators who voted for the nearly $800 billion stimulus package earlier this year, Snowe knows the sting of conservatives' rebukes, but she hastened to add that she has no intention of switching parties.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a moderate former governor who will retire from the Senate at the end of this Congress, suggested that he aligns himself with Specter's assertion that conservatives want to "purify" the Republican Party. "We cannot allow one segment of the group of people that are Republicans to dictate the kind of person that a Republican has to be -- the litmus test on their issues," Voinovich told National Journal. "I've been dealing with these people for a long time. In most instances, I tell them to go screw themselves."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., wondered aloud this week whether Specter's departure might have a "very positive" impact on the GOP, if it could "sober up people on the other side to say, 'Hey, when we lose somebody like this who has been with us through thick and thin for so many years, it is a sign of a message that we ought to listen to.' "
But Republicans aren't introspective by nature. "This is not the party of navel-gazers," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor and an expert on the Senate. "Almost the cultural characteristic of the party is a lack of soul-searching. Their idea is to plunge right ahead and try to convince people of the rightness of a true religion."
Interviews with several GOP senators and senior staffers suggested that the Specter defection did not, at least immediately, result in a widespread view that it's time to regroup. "This decision appears to be politically motivated rather than philosophically motivated, which is where Arlen usually goes when he's in disagreement with us," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. "That's what bothers me more than anything."
"I still think a majority of Americans are where we are--that is, center to the right of center," Chambliss continued. "We need to continue to focus on that and give the emphasis to that."
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who occupies one of the 36 Senate seats up for voters' consideration in 2010, said that Republicans must again locate their "compass" after losing the public's trust in the wake of rising federal spending and dissatisfaction with various Bush administration policies.
Polls show that while the percentage of voters who identify themselves as Republican has dropped to 23 percent in 2009, the migration is not to the Democratic Party, but overwhelmingly to the independent column. "What I think it means is that we both have to try really hard to attract that now-big bloc of unaffiliated voters, because they now represent the majority of the electorate," Thune said.
A poll released on April 29 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that the Republican Party lost about a quarter of its base in the past five years, while 36 percent of Americans now describe themselves as independents. Democratic registration is holding steady.
One point of agreement among many Republicans this week was that Democrats probably won't be able to make the most of Specter's gift.
"I think they'll overreach," GOP political consultant Ed Rollins said. He predicted that the Democratic Party will keep spending--including in Iraq and Afghanistan, where continued involvement threatens to alienate Obama's grassroots support. "My sense is that the best of intentions and the worst of conditions sometimes don't make good politics," Rollins added.
At a news conference on Wednesday night marking his 100th day in the Oval Office, Obama declined to publicly gloat about Specter's fence-jumping and sought to tamp down expectations. He said he obviously saw Specter's switch as "overall, a positive," but maintained that he's well aware that Specter's "strong independent streak" will continue. "He was very blunt in saying I couldn't count on him to march lockstep on every single issue," Obama said, while later adding, "I am under no illusions that suddenly I'm going to have a rubber-stamp Senate."
The president sounded like a realist as he spoke about the daunting policy agenda that he's leading Congress to embrace amid a recession and two wars. After all, parts of his agenda -- particularly energy policy -- center on regional concerns more than party, rendering the mere number of Senate Democrats almost irrelevant.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a red-state moderate who could pose problems for Obama on energy issues, emphasized this week that she wants the left wing of her party to think in terms of the big tent that supposedly attracted Specter.
"Democrats should see that having a party that is respectful of a broad cross section of people is important," Landrieu told National Journal. "I think Democrats do well to focus on business, business creation, business issues, and practical solutions to energy. I believe Democrats are smart when they don't overregulate and over-tax." She also predicted that Specter will be comfortable with Senate Democratic moderates: "He won't have to move his chair too far from where his chair has already been."
Another influential Senate moderate downplayed the significance of Specter's switch. "I think people are going to expect it to have an impact that probably it won't," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., one of the most liberal senators, echoed Nelson's forecast, saying that Specter's conversion does nothing to resolve the regional scuffling that dominates the search for a compromise climate-change measure. But Boxer did say that Specter's choice enhances the Democratic brand.
"I think it has everything to say about us as a party," Boxer said. "We're looking forward; we're the party of change; we're not 'the Party of No.' I think it's a statement that we are a big, broad umbrella, and Republicans are a tiny little umbrella, and if you peek outside, you get soaked."
Specter's move may not change the future of the complex and controversial cap-and-trade proposal that Obama supports to reduce carbon emissions, but on health care reform, the Pennsylvania senator may be an asset. As a cancer survivor and staunch supporter of the National Institutes of Health, he has a personal investment in efforts to expand insurance coverage and improve medical outcomes. His seniority puts him in line to chair the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Obama suggested that Specter, now unplugged from his conservative critics, may be "liberated" to advocate for health care reform.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a key Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee who has worked for years toward a bipartisan agreement on health care, grinned broadly on Tuesday when asked by a mob of reporters about Specter's decision. "It's a historical development that boosts chances for bipartisan support that is so key to moving forward on the premier issue of our time," Wyden said.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., walking past Wyden at that moment, agreed. "It helps pass meaningful health care reform," Baucus said. "It helps."
On other issues, however, Specter insists he will not deliver the 60th vote. He opposes some of the president's personnel picks for the Justice Department and the judicial bench. He's not a fan of using the budget reconciliation process -- as Obama and some Democrats have said they are willing to do -- to overcome GOP filibusters blocking major policy initiatives. And he has been both for and against the labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act known as "card check."
"Specter's shift provides an important opening to continue the conversation with him on the need for labor law reform, which he's already indicated he favors," said a senior official with organized labor.
Although Specter was adamant this week that his independent principles will not waver, history suggests that he will move to the left. According to a review of the voting records of five senators and House members who changed parties in recent decades, drawn from National Journal's annual vote ratings, Democrats who became Republicans voted more conservative after their switch, and GOPers-turned-Democrats moved to the left.
Former Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, a onetime Republican who became an independent, sided more consistently with the liberals after he began caucusing with the Democrats in 2001. In 1999, Jeffords's NJ vote rating was similar to those of Republicans Specter and Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island. By 2006, his final year in office, Jeffords's record looked a lot like that of liberal Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
Rep. Michael Forbes of New York also voted more consistently with the Left after he bolted the GOP for the Democratic Party in 1999, according to the NJ ratings. It's worth noting that despite promised backing from House Democratic leaders and President Clinton, Forbes lost his seat in the 2000 Democratic primary.
The Wild Card
Specter may have less to fear for his political future. "This was a brilliant coup by Specter," Terry Madonna, director of the Pennsylvania-based Franklin and Marshall poll, told National Journal.
"In the polls I have done, he does very well with Democrats," Madonna said. "He's in a strong position at the moment to win a sixth term. And the next few weeks will tell whether several types of Democrats accept him: the party activists who might resist turning the seat over to a Republican; the Obama Democrats who might want a 100 percent Obama Democrat and not a 50 percent Democrat, as Specter is likely to be; and organized labor, not happy about card check, but in the end I think labor has no real place to go."
One of Specter's party-switching inspirations was Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who was re-elected in 2006 as an independent after losing his Democratic primary during fierce debate about the Iraq war, which he supported. This week, Lieberman recalled the sting he felt when longtime Senate colleagues backed his Democratic primary opponent, who opposed the war: "2006 was very difficult, in a personal sense, and awkward," Lieberman said in an interview. "I was disappointed more of them didn't stick with me." He now identifies himself as an independent Democrat.
Specter -- who shortly before his Tuesday press conference got a cold reception when he bade his GOP colleagues farewell at their weekly luncheon -- also expressed disappointment. "I know that I'm disappointing many of my friends and colleagues," he said. "But, frankly, I have been disappointed by some of the responses, so the disappointment runs in both directions."
It appears that Specter's party change had many fathers, judging from the number of Democrats who raised their hands this week to say they had done their parts to woo the Pennsylvanian for months, even years.
Obama took no direct credit but said he thought that perhaps his presidency had "restored confidence in the American people that we're moving in the right direction," thereby making his the A-team to be on. Boxer said she had invited Specter to switch parties two months ago during an event she hosted. Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said he played a role.
But most of the credit -- if it works out that way -- goes to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a "mother hen," said one source, who tries to warm senators to the idea of wearing a new label, and to Vice President Biden, who served up enough friendship, private appeals, and public blandishments to persuade Specter that the Democrats could be his friends of the hour.
Reid answered Specter's telephone call on Monday night when the Republican said he'd like to join the Democrats. During a breakfast with reporters last month, Reid's face broke into a warm smile as he praised Biden for volunteering to use the relationships he had nurtured over 30 years in the Senate to quietly nudge senators and make calls when Reid asked for help. "That is A-important," the majority leader declared. And a month later, Reid demonstrated why.
For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Specter spoke with him late Monday to explain his thinking, and McConnell urged him to reconsider his options overnight. The two spoke again on Tuesday morning, but Specter had not changed his mind. McConnell said that Specter made clear in several conversations that "he didn't have any problem whatsoever with the way he'd been treated by the Republican Conference." In fact, GOP leaders supported Specter for re-election.
"This is a Pennsylvania story about his ... political decision," McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. "His conclusion was that only as a Democrat would he have a chance of retaining this seat."
As Reid keeps working to herd an ideologically diverse caucus to deliver big policy shifts, Specter will get the royal treatment -- until his contrarian positions alienate his colleagues, or his support is no longer needed. As one Capitol Hill source put it, "His sticker price drops" if Senate Democrats add seats to enlarge their majority in next fall's midterm elections. In the past, the hitch with Specter, Reid once wrote, is "he is always with us when we don't need him."
This article appears in the May 9, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.