David Greenberg: Why Arlen Specter's defection should terrify the GOP

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.]

On Aug. 11, 1971, John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York City, radiating calm and charm after a 10-day camping trip in Colorado and Utah, stepped before a crowd in the ballroom of Gracie Mansion to announce that he was becoming a Democrat. After explaining where he believed his party had gone astray—Vietnam, wiretapping, neglect of urban problems, and subservience to big business led the list—the 49-year-old mayor portrayed the decision as one forced on him by his party's own choices. "I regret that new directions cannot emerge from a Republican Party that has … stifled dissent and … rejected internal reform." Yet he insisted that he would retain the maverick streak that had come to characterize his place in the GOP. "I have no illusions about the Democratic Party," he said, "and I will work as a Democrat without abandoning my personal independence."

Editorialists were quick to note the cynicism behind Lindsay's move. The New York Times carped that it was "obviously triggered by his belief that he could not achieve higher office as a Republican." Lindsay, indeed, went on to run a fruitless campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination the next year. More notable than Lindsay's opportunism was his articulation of grievances shared by growing numbers of liberal Republicans, who felt that their party, under Richard Nixon, had become hostile to their values. A Republican majority may have been emerging, but it had no place for those, like Lindsay, who made civil rights and the arts their pet issues. In the next few years, many more liberal Republicans would leave the party over its stands on race, Vietnam, and abortion.

The stream that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with that trickle of defections slowed for a time, but it has now reached a watershed. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's decision yesterday to change parties reflects, by his own admission, a desire to improve his re-election prospects next year. Some critics are therefore already downplaying its significance, as they did with Lindsay. But because this move comes so late in Specter's career—born in 1930, he has been in politics since the 1960s and in the Senate since 1981—it can't be taken lightly.

Specter's decision fits into a larger pattern. It follows the exit from the GOP of Sens. Jim Jeffords in 2001 and Lincoln Chafee in 2007 (after losing his re-election bid), to say nothing of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg the same year. Noteworthy, too, have been the endorsements of both John Kerry and Barack Obama by surprising numbers of Republicans. And despite Specter's Lindsay-esque avowal of independence—"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. … I will continue my independent voting and follow my conscience on what I think is best for Pennsylvania and America"—his switch will more often than not give the Democrats their magic number of 60 Senate votes (once Minnesota's Al Franken is seated). For this reason, Specter's decision has, understandably, rocked the political world.

Historically, Specter's move is best understood as the signal event in the next stage of what the journalist Ronald Brownstein has called "The Great Sorting Out"—a gradual but massive sorting of voters and elected officials that has brought their partisan affiliation into close alignment with their ideology. In The Second Civil War (2007), Brownstein showed how over the last four decades "conservatives" have increasingly become Republicans and "liberals" increasingly Democratic—turning these once-motley coalitions into relatively uniform ideological vehicles. In 1970, 35 percent of Democrats called themselves liberal and 26 percent called themselves conservative. By 2000, 52 percent were liberal, only 17 percent conservative. The GOP saw a mirror-image change. The mere 9 percent of Republicans who called themselves liberal in 1970 dwindled to 6 percent in 2000; the 63 percent conservative portion grew to 77 percent.

This sorting out has transformed both parties, but for years it was the Democrats' losses that struck observers as the real news. As far back as the 1960s, even as Lindsay and other liberals were bolting the GOP, the Democrats' troubles seemed far graver—as white Southerners, Catholics, and blue-collar workers left the party in droves. This trend became a full-blown crisis in 1980 when Democratic votes helped elect Ronald Reagan and a Republican Congress, making the "Reagan Democrats" the demographic group of the decade. Bill Clinton wooed many of them back into the Democratic fold, but the tide continued to run in the GOP's favor in the 1990s, especially in the South. The changing of parties by national legislators, such as Richard Shelby of Alabama in 1994 and Billy Tauzin of Louisiana in 1995, mattered not because they were so numerous but because these switches vividly embodied a larger trend: steady gains by Republicans throughout the South as moderate-to-conservative Democrats (Sens. Sam Nunn, John Breaux, and Chuck Robb) gave way to staunchly right-wing Republicans (Sens. Saxby Chambliss, George Allen, and David Vitter).

With Specter's switch, it's now the Democrats' turn to reap the gains and the Republicans' turn to agonize about their future. The party is falling on hard times in states such as Oregon and Ohio, once bastions of liberal Republicanism, but even more catastrophically in the Northeast, from New England down through the mid-Atlantic. Besides the loss of Jeffords and Chafee, Republicans have recently seen longtime moderate legislators such as Chris Shays and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut go down to defeat—along with other New Englanders, like John Sununu Jr., who had few liberal leanings but whose constituents' Democratic politics nonetheless kept them tethered to the center. In the House and the Senate, blue has almost completely engulfed the Northeast. Even the statehouses of New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey—which stayed defiantly Republican through much of the 1990s, despite electoral trends—have reverted to Democratic control.

All of this marks a more dramatic change than many people realize. As Ed Kilgore of the Democratic Leadership Council wrote in 2001, after Jim Jeffords' flip, the 38 Republicans in the Senate in 1976 comprised some 17 who were liberals or moderates—including such historic names as Lowell Weicker, Charles Percy, Ed Brooke, Clifford Case, Jacob Javits, Richard Schweiker, and Charles Mathias. That roster doesn't even include such senators as Howard Baker or Bob Dole, who by the 1990s would be routinely labeled moderates. The vice president, moreover, was none other than the quintessential liberal Republican, former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Although conservatives scored a momentous victory in 1980, the Republican Party's liberal wing survived. Paradoxically, the GOP's majority status allowed moderates and even liberals to remain viable within it—giving some substance to what Specter claimed, with only minor exaggeration, amounted to a "Reagan Big Tent." When you're winning, it's easy to share the electoral wealth. Moderates accommodated themselves to the new environment by pledging fealty on the issues that mattered most to the far right: low taxes, militarism, opposition to abortion. Specter did his share of accommodating—until yesterday, most liberals associate him mainly with his harsh treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings. But the most visible example of this survival instinct was none other than George Bush Sr.—long ago regarded as a classic Yankee Republican. Having run against Reagan from the left in the 1980 presidential primaries, Bush jettisoned his aversion to supply-side economics and his support for reproductive rights and, by his 1988 presidential bid, embraced the fierce cultural politics of patriotism and law and order. His subsequent failure to govern as a hard-right conservative doomed him with the GOP's increasingly monolithic base.

Once conservatives controlled all three branches of government—with Tom DeLay running Congress and George Bush Jr. in the White House—liberal-to-moderate Republicans found themselves in deeper trouble. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argued in Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (2005), the congressional leadership isolated and punished moderates such as Marge Roukema of New Jersey—who, like Specter, was first elected in the 1980 Reagan sweep—by denying her a plum committee chairmanship and funding right-wing primary challenges. Worn down by it all, she retired. Elsewhere, too, groups ranging from the Club for Growth to the National Rifle Association to various Christian organizations actively channeled energy and money into enforcing a doctrinaire ideological purity within the GOP, squeezing out moderates. That some of these challenges met with success, driving the Republican Party further rightward, gave these activists the false impression that voters in the Northeast were hungry for zealotry. They weren't, and soon the conservatives' gains in the region were reversed.

Like John Lindsay's decision almost 40 years ago, Specter's defection highlights the dangers for a party that gambles its viability on the politics of polarization. For a few years after Sept. 11, an upwelling of militant nationalism allowed Republicans to tell themselves—and the country—that the American public was dogmatically conservative in its core beliefs and that liberals amounted to a fringe group confined to a few urban enclaves and the coasts. But even in the dark days of the Bush years, Democrats managed to continue expanding their tent, using Republican purists as foils for their own inclusiveness. Their party now spans a huge and healthy ideological range. The GOP cannot afford to lose more wheel horses like Arlen Specter, lest it become the fringe party, confined to the Deep South and interior West.

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Robert Lee Gaston - 5/11/2009

In light of events: loss of seniority and committee assignments. Arlen Specter's defection should terrify Arlen Specter.

I don’t think life as a “back bencher” junior senator is what he had in mind. That also should serve as a good warning to those who might want to follow.

Good luck Arlen. Have fun in the trenches with a much smaller staff.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/7/2009

I put Nancy Johnson and John Sununu Jr. in a different category than Jeffords, Chafee, Shays and Specter. The latter four were 100 octane liberals nearly all the time, Specter only slightly less so than the other three. Specter was never reliable, and will be distrusted as long as he lives, no matter which side he's on. He is also rumored to be the most personally disliked of all senators.

I can understand why the Democrats have embraced his switching parties now, but I cannot understand why "Fast Eddie" Rendell has been clearing the Democratic senate primary field for Specter next year. Surely at 80 or 81 will be an underdog in that race, and the GOP is very likely to reclaim his seat.

The Democrats often had Specter to make their 60th vote anyway, but his flip will make it somewhat more likely, when needed. In this matter the Democrats have acted like a pennant contender trading for an older player--for immediate use, only.

People like Lincoln Chafee and Chris Shays and Jim Jeffords and Arlen Specter were worse than useless to the GOP, because they had seniority and took over committees and "ranking member" chairs, slowing conservative progress in the real work of governing. They have been a terrible brake.

The author of this piece is not correct in calling Nelson Rockefeller the "quintessential" leftwing Republican. At first he was, but by the time Ford named him Vice-President he had turned much more conservative. Nelson came to understand the shortcomings of socialism and weak foreign policies before he died.

Robert Lee Gaston - 5/5/2009

David Souter did proclaim his conservative convictions. He just forgot them the day after he was sworn in. I guess honesty is not an especially important attribute for a justice.

R.R. Hamilton - 5/4/2009

No intelligent observer of the Supreme Court would compare Ginsburg and Breyer with Roberts and Alito. Already I've read on legal blogs that the Left has little hope of finding a nominee of the intellectual firepower of R. or A. At best, the Left is hoping to find someone with the passion of Scalia.

Thomas R. Cox - 5/4/2009

The conservative Republican strategy rests on the assumption that there is a massive body of potential voters for their cause who have as yet not been heard from to any degree, but will rally to the cause if the GOP is conservative and pure enough. It smacks of Barry Goldwater's strategy that he was going to appeal to the "hidden majority" of right-wing Americans. It didn't work then, and it won't work now--and for the same reason, the "hidden majority" doesn't exist.

Michael Green - 5/4/2009

To argue that the two major political parties are that similar is to ignore what happened for the past eight years--and the years before that. Look no further than David Souter's retirement announcement. For the younger George Bush to have named him to the Supreme Court, Souter would have had to make clear his right-wing conservatism. With all due respect, anyone who thinks the two parties are the same, and that Ruth Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are the same appointees as John Roberts and Samuel Alito, is deeply deluded about American politics and American political history.

John D. Beatty - 5/4/2009

The two-party system has been dead for generations in the US. The republicans and democrats are just two factions of the same ruling oligarchy of career thieves who simply change offices to make it look good. If they aren't in some elected office they are in some appointed slot, still stealing the same money as they would be anywhere else. Spector's laughable "announcement" is only for the fundraising fools who still think that they are two different organizations that are interested in the common welfare of the Republic, when in truth they gave up on that hoary old fossil ages ago.