Longtime Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania defected from the Republican party this week and took up ranks as the 60th Democrat in what will soon be a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate. (Al Franken’s victory in the Minnesota Senate recount has been confirmed by a Minnesota court, although he may not take office until Republican appeals are settled).
Specter’s statement about the momentous change said,
“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.”
The move serves Specter’s reelection prospects as the Republican party and electorate turned against him after he broke ranks and supported President Obama’s stimulus legislation in February. Specter will run as a Democrat in 2010 and can now expect President Obama’s, and the Democratic party’s, support.
Specter has been a respected centrist with a pragmatic approach not far from the President’s. His announcement is a stunning victory for President Obama’s leadership at the 100-day mark.
Senator Olympia Snowe, another moderate Republican who broke ranks to support the President’s stimulus legislation bemoaned the narrow focus of the current Republican party in a New York Times op-ed, “In my view, the political environment that has made it inhospitable for a moderate Republican in Pennsylvania is a microcosm of a deeper, more pervasive problem that places our party in jeopardy nationwide.”
The Democratic President had already taken authoritative command. Increased transparency, improved ethics, a new vision of foreign policy leadership by multilateral coalition building and negotiation, financial support for education, health care, and clean energy, and outlines of a legislative agenda fell in to place without incident during the first 100 days.
The President was harshly criticized for deficit spending, but the deep economic downturn he inherited upon inauguration has led most leading economists to agree that government intervention is warranted and that in the face of an unusually steep drop in economic activity, deficits spending was less of a risk than the depression which might otherwise result and which the deficit spending aimed to avert.
As the President moves from the honeymoon period to the heart of his legislative agenda it will be a huge benefit to have Specter among the ranks of Democrats. The President intends to move forward on health care reform this year and his administration and congressional leaders are also hard at work on financial regulations and energy policy. Mr. Obama will still have to coral Democrats to reach agreement, and as in the budget and stimulus legislation, compromises will occur. But with 60 Democrats in the Senate, and an overwhelming majority in the House, the President will not need Republican approval or support. He will very likely seek it, in the spirit of consensus building and bi-partisanship, but the ball will be in his court.