Commenting on social conservatives gloating over Arlen Specter’s decision to switch parties, moderate Republican blogger Dennis Sanders suggests that “they probably have resigned the GOP to a rump status,” warning “you can be an ideologically pure party or you can be a majority party, but you can’t be both.” He’s onto something here.
Yes, Republican needs moderates to reach a majority, but those who see Specter’s departure as a sign of the GOP abandoning moderates ignore the peculiarities of the Pennsylvania Senator’s persona and career. He has never been much of a party loyalist, using the Republican Party as a platform to get elected, but doing little to help build the party in the Keystone State. As Bruce put it, except in the years he was running for reelection, “he would just melt into the Washington Elite.”
The GOP did its utmost to keep Specter. In 2004, then-President Bush and his then-fellow Republican Senator Rick Santorum campaigned for him in the Republican primary. After the 2004 elections, despite attempts from conservatives to remove him as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, his Senate GOP colleagues kept him in place, with a number of conservatives (including notably Hugh Hewitt) supporting the move. Just last month, Texas Senator John Cornyn chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) “sent a fund-raising plea on behalf of” his Pennsylvania colleague. This was after Specter had voted for the spendthrift “stimulus.”
It’s not so much that the party was moving too far to the right, but that Specter sought political salvation in the party that’s moving even further to the left.
While some say Republicans have been taken over by social conservatives, Glenn Reynolds, himself a libertarian, just doesn’t see the GOP’s shift to the right on social issues. Perhaps, people see such a shift because the party, until recently, had abandoned its small government ways, allowing social issues to appear as the issue which distinguished Republicans from Democrats.
The issue isn’t so much the GOP, but the way the MSM portrays the party. In a must-read post, Dan Riehl nails it:
But I think the real shift has been cultural and in media. For espousing ideas that were reasonably mainstream during the Reagan Era, one is promptly labeled a religious kook today. While the Republicans have been and remain the more socially conservative party, the Left has been effective in their demonizing of that aspect, especially every time a social conservative Republican goes astray with a hooker, or in a men’s room, for instance. Lastly, televangelists and some notable moderate Republicans have helped demonize this over time, too.
Like former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Dan sees this as “significant opportunity but only if the GOP seizes upon it as a pivot point to genuinely become the party of limited government, reduced spending and low taxes.” As Gingrich puts it, this makes “the 2010 and 2012 elections an even clearer choice of two directions for America.”
The fact that Bush and Santorum stood behind Specter in 2004, that a majority of Senate Republicans stood behind him after that fall’s elections, that Cornyn was prepared to stand behind for next year’s contest suggests that GOP leaders do not maintain a litmus test for party membership or leadership.
That said, Arlen Specter was anything but a supporter of the broad unifying principles of the GOP which his Maine colleague Olympia Snowe outlined in commenting on his switch:
Ultimately, we should, as President Reagan urged, “emphasize the things that unite us and make these the only ‘litmus tests’ of what constitutes a Republican: our belief in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty.” We must heed these words to rebuild our party.
Exactly. Specter’s switch just might make it easier for us to emphasize those principles. At least that’s what I hope.