The nation’s capital rarely experiences earthquakes of any detectable magnitude. The last one in the area occurred on May 6, 2008. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, that temblor measured 1.8 on the Richter scale. The epicenter was about a mile west-southwest of Annandale, Va. (38.828°N, 77.234°W). That quake jostled Northern Virginia. Some people in nearby Silver Spring and Bethesda, Md., felt it too.
That seismological event pales in comparison with the earthquake that occurred early this afternoon East Coast time. The epicenter was in one of the meeting rooms on Capitol Hill, where Arlen Specter, for 29 years a Senator and until now the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced his switch to the Democratic Party. The USGS didn’t record anything, but on the Richter scale of politics, the shock waves of this event will be felt across the country.
“I found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more with the philosophy of the Democratic Party,” Specter said at a press conference.
“I have traveled the state and surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls … and have found that the prospects for winning the Republican primary are bleak. I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. … I’m prepared to take on all comers in the general election.”
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There’s no denying that Specter’s decision was politically pragmatic. Specter was looking down the barrel of a serious primary challenge from former GOP Rep. Pat Twoomey. “Former Pennsylvania Congressman Patrick Toomey was seen as a strong candidate who could possibly have defeated Specter in the Republican primary. Additionally, Toomey is widely acknowledged as the more conservative candidate,” Talk Radio News Service reported today.
But there was more than a little principle behind his decision. Specter’s prepared statement said: “I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the Party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my Party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation. …
“I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary.”
If Al Franken wins his never-ending court case in Minnesota against Norm Coleman, as fully expected, Democrats would have achieved the numerical Holy Grail of congressional politics: the filibuster-proof level of 60 votes, and thus the ability to advance the agenda of the Obama administration in a period of national urgency that screams for action, not gridlock, in the Congress.
It’s not clear when Specter would start formally caucusing with Democrats, but since Specter has reportedly been talking to a number of high party officials — Vice President Biden, among them — for weeks now, it’s safe to say that as a political matter, caucusing has already begun.
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As you might expect, the Republican long knives have been drawn. All the usual mouthpieces of the party weighed in against Arlen the Apostate.
Talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh jumped in early. "A lot of people said, ‘well, Specter, take McCain with you, and his daughter with you," he fumed this morning.
"Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind,” said RNC Chairman and erstwhile GOP ambassador to hiphop America Michael Steele. “He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record."
Steele, jabbering in hip-argot mode again, told CNN later that Specter would definitely be in the crosshairs. "[I]f Senator Specter survives into the fall, get ready to go to the mat, baby, because we're coming after you and we're taking you out."
The Hill reported Tuesday that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Specter's decision was a "threat to the country.”
McConnell accused Specter of having practiced naked politics (imagine that).
"I think the threat to the country presented by this defection really relates to the issue of whether or not in the United States of America our people want the majority to have whatever it wants without restraint, without a check or a balance," McConnell said at a press availability attended by The Hill.
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But some on the right side of the political ledger were more practical.
“This is a sad day for the GOP,” Michael Smerconish, a conservative Philadelphia radio host, told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post. “He is what the party needed to be. They need to cultivate more Specters instead of deriding him as a RINO [Republican In Name Only].”
“On the national level of the Republican Party, we haven’t certainly heard warm, encouraging words about how they view moderates, ‘either you are with us or against us,’” said Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the few remaining so-called moderates left standing.
Snowe told The New York Times that Republican leaders didn’t get the idea that “political diversity makes a party stronger, and ultimately we are heading to having the smallest political tent in history for any political party the way things are unfolding.”
Specter said as much himself. “Well, the party has shifted very far to the right. It was pretty far to the right in 2004.”
“This is a painful decision,” he said. But “[d]isappointment runs in both directions.”
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Burnishing his reputation as an iconoclast willing to break with party orthodoxy, Specter said he wouldn’t be sitting in the Democrats’ amen corner on every piece of their legislation. “I will not be an automatic 60th vote,” he said at the press conference. “I will not hesitate to disagree and vote my individual thinking.” To reinforce this, Specter mentioned that he would continue to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, a darling bill of the Democrats — the so-called “card check” proposal that would make it easier for workers to form unions.
At least one other Democrat played down the idea of lockstep party-line votes.
“Sixty members doesn't translate to 60 votes, so it doesn't really change anything for me," said conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska to Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post. “The automatic assumption that people will take from this is, ‘Ah, things are changing.’ And maybe they will, but it's not automatic.”
But there’s no denying the impact this top-shelf defection will have on the Republicans, already in deep existential crisis, and on an Obama administration, which today, a day early, realized perhaps the perfect political capstone on a breakthrough first 100 days.
And there’s no way the Republican party can overlook the story that’s bigger than Specter’s flight to the Democrats: the fact that 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans made the same migration before the presidential election last year.
There’s your aftershock. What matters isn’t what Arlen Specter did, it’s the seismic shift in political thinking that Arlen Specter now represents.
Image credit: Specter top: Still from MSNBC brodcast. Specter bottom: Still from CNN broadcast.