Publicly, GOP leaders and operatives are slamming Republican Sen. Arlen Specter for being an “opportunist.” In a scathing statement released soon after the Tuesday announcement that Specter is becoming a Democrat, GOP chairman Michael Steele charged that Specter “only cares about furthering his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.”
Privately, however, Republicans are grimacing, stunned, angry and thrown off-kilter, by Specter’s defection.
The real issue here is not so much about Arlen Specter but more about what his abrupt departure from the GOP says about the Republican Party and its ever-shrinking political base in American politics.
As a lifelong moderate Republican myself, (who is also a person of color from the Northeast) who has long admired Sen. Specter for being a strong voice of bipartisanship and reason within the otherwise conservative Senate GOP caucus, I am deeply disappointed by Specter’s decision to abandon his party for overtly political reasons. No matter how you slice this, Specter did not leave the GOP on principle as much as he did for political expediency. Frankly, that is beneath someone of his stature and dignity.
Whatever happened to when the going gets tough…? Guess those old adages of loyalty no longer apply in our modern-day politics.
What the GOP needs right now is for solid and sensible Republicans such as Sen. Specter, Chairman Steele, Sen. Olympia Snowe, Sen. Susan Collins, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Sen. John McCain, Gen. Colin Powell, Rep. Eric Cantor, Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and my good friend Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to work to bring the GOP back to the center and work with their conservative colleagues to build a new unified GOP coalition dedicated to national security, smaller government and fiscal responsibility. Only when this happens will the GOP become a “big tent” national party.
All Tuesday afternoon, Republicans were calling one another, trying to take stock of the moment. I spoke with one longtime senior GOP state official in Pennsylvania, who told me, “Specter had his moments with the party leadership—we had our ups and downs for sure, but we always worked them out. I can’t say I am surprised, however, at his decision…. He did what was politically necessary to keep his power base in Washington for Pennsylvania.”
In a news conference on Tuesday (following his earlier written statements), Specter gave his reasons for switching political parties after 29 years as a Republican. Chief among the reasons he cited was that in the primaries, organizations like the Club for Growth and “hard-bitten conservatives” have gone after their own (more moderate Republicans) like Heather Wilson in New Mexico and others. Specter also gave a stinging rebuke of where the GOP has gone since he first joined it in the 1980s, saying: “Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."
In the final analysis, Specter’s stated reasons for leaving the GOP are in line with the opinion piece I wrote for Washington Post’s Outlook section in Nov. 2008, titled, “It’s My Party, But I Don’t Feel Part of It.” I wrote about my experience as a black moderate Republican in a political party that I have watched grow more and more conservative beyond its original charter and founding principles.
For many black Americans, Specter’s shift is yet another signal of the party’s distance from them. It is a further sign that the moderate Republicans like the great Everett Dirksen (GOP Senate Minority Leader during the civil rights era who helped pass the Civil Rights Act), and men like Arlen Specter who have supported affirmative action, urban reforms and civil rights for the most part are becoming extinct. There may be a cluster of conservative-leaning black voters who align with the GOP on issues like faith, gay marriage and low taxes, but the GOP has no sound strategy to reach them. The Republicans’ problem in widening their tent is even more grave when you consider that the party is no longer viable in places like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland where blacks make up large population blocks.
I don’t have any answers to be honest, but I can say with confidence that Specter’s jump to the Democratic Party will have a huge impact on how the GOP goes forward from here. The party will either “wake up” and have a serious “come to Jesus” meeting with its leaders, or it will continue to become a more narrow party that does not reflect America’s best diversity and values.
No matter what the party’s leaders are saying in public, Specter’s defection hurts. And the party’s reluctance to address its real problems hurts even more.
Sophia Nelson is a longtime Republican strategist and contributor to The Root.