St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dems should be wary of Specter party switch

There's "less than meets the eye" in the surprise switch of Sen. Arlen Specter (PA) from Republican to Democrat.

All the talk about Specter giving the Democrats the magic 60th vote (counting the expected seating of Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota) overlooks the fact that the Democrats already had Specter's vote in every meaningful vote this session, including the stimulus bill and the budget. Moreover, Specter has announced that the party change will not change his opposition to the card-check bill coveted by organized labor. Specter's still a maverick. The party switch only matters in the senate if Specter's vote depends on his party, and the only vote of that kind is the organizational vote on which party controls the chamber. That mattered in 2001, when Vermont Republican Jim Jefford's party change gave senate control to the Democrats. That's not the case now, and isn't likely to be so in the foreseeable future.

What it does mean is that Specter is likely to keep his senate seat for another election. As he stated so candidly, he would have lost renomination in the Republican Primary if he had stayed. (Polls already showed primary challenger former Rep. Pat Toomey leading him by double digits.) The same polls showed Democrats taking the seat in the general election by beating Toomey. The difference is which Democrat wins the seat. Instead of a more traditional liberal Democrat, the party is now likely to nominate Specter as one of its own.

This means that the senate will be less progressive after 2010 than it would have been if Pennsylvania would have been represented by a traditional northeastern Democrat instead of the same old Specter. Instead of being a thorn in the side of Republicans by siding with Democrats, Specter will now be a thorn in the side of Democrats by siding with Republicans.

Except for card-check, that may not matter much in the short term, with Democrats controlling the agenda in both Congress and the White House. The main area where the moderate Specter was valuable to Republicans (and frustrating to Democrats) was the confirmation of judicial nominees of Republican presidents. The razor-thin confirmations of Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Samuel Alito all occurred because of Specter's support. But Specter also supported confirmation of President Clinton's nominees, and he was not expected to oppose any Obama judicial nominee regardless of which side of the aisle he sat.

But it could be a different story if Republicans rebound by 2012. Obama's reelection will hinge on the success or failure of his economic policies. If they haven't worked their promised magic by then, we could be looking at a Republican president making judicial appointments during the last four years of Specter's next term, and Specter's defection then from Democrat orthodoxy could be key.

Democrats could also suffer another way from giving Specter the opportunity to hold the senate seat the party would have won anyway. Seven years older than John McCain, Specter will be 80 when he wins reelection, and would have to live to 86 to serve out his term. If the economy has not turned the corner within the next two years, conservative economic populism could bring down Specter's running mate, Gov. Ed Rendell, even if Specter wins. That could give a Republican governor the power to pick Specter's replacement if Specter dies in office. In fact, if such a populist revolt takes place then, a 30-year incumbent running in the party of the President might become a vulnerable target for defeat, regardless of what polls say a year and a half before the election.

Perhaps Democrats, especially those of a more progressive persuation, should consider the possibility of running a traditional northeastern liberal Democrat for senate in 2010 instead of a frail Republican retread.