It’s not surprising to look through my feed reader and see that 90% of the politics posts are about Arlen Specter switching parties to avoid an impossible primary. And I don’t begrudge the people their right to talk about it because it’s certainly news. It’s also entertaining to watch Republicans have to defend the defection, something that wasn’t so much fun back in the 90s when Richard Shelby and Ben Nighthorse Campbell did the reverse. But there’s more to this that isn’t quite so positive, and might end up being totally counterproductive.
Despite being to the left of most Republicans in the Senate, Specter is still very conservative relative to the median Senate Democrat. Worse, he’s got what he thinks of as an “independent streak,” which is actually just a desire for attention that guides his votes on close issues and caused so much of the arbitrary hacking away at the stimulus bill. He has been sending mixed signals today:
To Obama: “I’m a loyal Democrat. I support your agenda.”
Public statement: “My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords’ switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.”
Having lived the first 25 years of my life in Pennsylvania, I believe I have standing to advise you to bet the farm that the latter Specter is the one we’ll see with the D after his name. He’s already reaffirmed his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, and Obama’s nominee to unfuck the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Dawn Johnsen. Not so loyal, not so supportive. And of course there will be more; look for Specter to blackmail Senate Dems and the administration any time there is a cloture vote, and go on Sunday morning TV fluffing himself over his various “compromises.”
This would all be troubling but not a huge problem in a vacuum. But apparently there are backroom deals in place that cleared the way for Specter to switch, including a guarantee that the PA Democratic party and DSCC won’t field or fund a primary challenger, and that Specter gets to keep his seniority ensuring he’ll chair committees in 2011. Now 60 does seem to be the magic number in the Senate because Harry Reid won’t force Republicans to actually filibuster, and when Al Franken is eventually seated, Democrats will have 60. But between Specter and Ben Nelson, there will still be theatrics and votes against cloture. Obama will still insist on compromising with what’s left of the Republican party, sometimes because he likes it and sometimes because Specter and/or Nelson will make him. So if Senate Democrats aren’t going to take advantage of finally getting to 60 (by enforcing party discipline), then it’s just a round number signifying not much in particular.
With Dems poised to gain even more Senate seats in 2010, promising Specter anything without getting a reliable vote in return is ludicrous. Pennsylvania is finally trending back to being solid blue, and Democrats have a deep bench there. Nationally, Dems could pick up 4-5 seats, with most of those being real Democrats. The Senate moderate preening caucus faces the probability of complete marginalization if there are 65 Democrats, as finding 60 to achieve cloture would be far less difficult. It would be great to stop worrying about the filibuster right now, but that isn’t what we’re getting with Specter, and it’s not Obama’s style anyway. And after hearing Democratic leaders promise subpoenas if they won in 2006, and a progressive agenda if they held Congress and took the White House in 2008, forgive me if I’m not jumping up and down for our newest Democrat.