The Specter Switch: The Incredible Shrinking Republican Party

Article excerpt


We are not losing blue states and shrinking as a party because we are not conservative enough. If we pursue a party that has no place for someone who agrees with me 70 percent of the time, that is based on an ideological purity test rather than a coalition test, then we are going to keep losing.

- Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican

When I read Mr. Graham's comment last week regarding the switch to the Democratic Party by Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, I was reminded of one of my favorite movies from my preteen years, the 1957 movie classic The Incredible Shrinking Man.

It's about a man who is exposed to a combination of radiation and insecticide and slowly begins to shrink. By the end of the movie, he has become so small that his wife puts him in a cage to protect him from their house cat and then, at the end of the movie, he is tragically washed down the drain of his sink.

The Republican Party cannot blame radiation and insecticide for its shrinkage. Sooner or later, it will have to face up to the reality that its problems are not a result of bad political strategy or communications, the current most popular self-deluding rationalizations. Rather, the shrinkage is primarily due to two facts about the current Religious Right-dominated Republican Party: unpopular ideas and bad attitudes.

First, polls show that the Religious Right's views on the social issues are not in accord with the views of growing majorities of moderate Republicans and independents, the key swing voters who decide general elections. Indeed, a recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed a plurality of all Americans for the first time now support gay marriage. And second, these swing voters are increasingly alienated by the intolerance of the Religious Right and their insistence on 100 percent agreement on social issues.

As Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, one of the few remaining Republican moderates in the Senate, wrote last week after the Specter announcement: "There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority party while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party. ... It was when we began to

emphasize social issues to the detriment of our basic tenets that we encountered an electoral backlash"

After Mr. Specter's switch, it looks likely that Pennsylvania Republicans will nominate in 2010 former Rep. Pat Toomey, the very type of Republican who has most alienated moderates and independents and is, thus, least electable. Thus Pennsylvania is a virtually certain Democratic pickup in 2010, whether that Democrat is Mr. Specter or someone else.

There is a vague deja vu for me in seeing the right taking down a Republican lawmaker who voted 70 percent of the time with his party's Senate colleagues. I am reminded of how the Democratic left treated incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in 2006. Mr. Lieberman had voted with his fellow Democrats not 70 percent of the time, but rather 90 percent of the time. Yet he was opposed by the Democratic left and lost a close race for the party's nomination in the 2006 primary. But he went on to win as an independent in the general election by a substantial margin.

While Mr. Lieberman offended many liberals by his support for the Iraq war, the fact is, on all the critical domestic litmus test issues, he had, indisputably, one of the most liberal voting records in Congress: pro-choice, pro-labor (including the so-called card-check bill), pro-social-spending programs, pro-environmental regulation, pro-civil rights and affirmative action, pro-women's rights and gay rights, and so on. …