- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Everyone likes to win, and Pennsylvania’s Sen. Arlen Specter is no exception. The difference is that Mr. Specter’s desire may do some real damage to the Republican Party and have broad implications for Americans generally.

If that seems an over-the-top analysis of Mr. Specter’s decision to dump the Republican Party in favor of the Democrats after 43 years, consider that it brings the Senate majority one crucial step closer to adopting anything it or President Obama pleases. In fact, the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster are practically assured now with Mr. Specter’s defection and a state court expected to certify Democrat Al Franken as the long-delayed winner of the Minnesota senatorial election.

This emasculates congressional Republicans and completes the humiliation that is the residue of the disastrous George W. Bush administration and the party’s continued move to the right. It leaves Republicans with a collective voice barely above a whisper and dim prospects of doing better anytime soon. The Democrats, meanwhile, now must manage what always has been an unruly caucus, which has been very difficult in the past. It is about the only hope Senate Republicans have, at least until the 2010 elections and probably considerably beyond that.

Mr. Specter’s decision was based on pure self-interest at the expense of his former colleagues and those Republicans from his home state who voted for him because of his party affiliation. His moderate, often controversial approach to legislating almost cost him the last primary election. The then-GOP House member whom he barely beat out in 2004, Pat Toomey, is running again, raising the probability that Mr. Specter would lose his party’s endorsement next April.

This plus the fact that Democratic registration is soaring in Pennsylvania made his chances for re-election bleak even if he unexpectedly defeated Mr. Toomey for the Republican nomination. To sweeten the deal for the 79-year-old senator and cancer survivor, Mr. Obama promised to support him in 2010.

By then, however, the damage will have been done to his former party’s hopes of forestalling Mr. Obama’s adventurous agenda. Controversial and far-reaching initiatives in health care, energy and education will have been decided, and that clearly explains why the White House, using Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. of neighboring Delaware and other Democratic leaders, spent so much time persuading Mr. Specter with promises of continued seniority and coveted committee assignments.

Things like this happen in Congress now and then, but they are never terribly pleasant. Failing to leave the dance with the one who brought you is not considered terribly admirable even in politics, where most anything goes as long as it carries personal advantages.

Republicans obviously need a stronger centrist image and members willing to take positions that are contrary to the inflexible, radical rhetoric of the conservatives. Mr. Specter was one of just three Republican members who voted for the president’s stimulus package.

There should be some concern that this new president will effectively control the government as few have for some time. Closest perhaps was President Johnson, whose landslide victory in 1964 produced overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and advanced an agenda that included the “guns and butter” approach to fighting an all-out war in Vietnam while maintaining expensive domestic programs. By 1966, voters were so disenchanted they kicked out many of the first-time House Democrats from the previous election, giving the Republican Party one of its best off-year performances in decades.

The Democrats, if history is any judge, cannot for the life of them remain solidly together on any number of issues. It just isn’t in their nature. Herding cats may be easier.

However, the potential is there for running roughshod over any who might disagree, thoughtfully or not. The chance for bipartisanship has been further diminished. Mr. Specter has told his new Democratic persuaders that he couldn’t be counted on all the time and showed it by voting against Obama-proposed legislation on his first day as a Democrat. Under the circumstances, Democrats might become as frustrated with his stances as Republicans were.

Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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