Thursday, April 30, 2009


Many Republicans are furious at Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s recent decision to switch to the Democratic Party. But they shouldn’t be.

For decades, conservative pundits and commentators have wondered why Mr. Specter bothered to keep calling himself a Republican. He wasn’t very fiscally conservative, as evidenced by his support of President Obama’s controversial $787 billion economic stimulus plan. And he often frustrated social conservatives with his support of abortion, stem-cell research and civil unions.

That’s why Mr. Specter was usually called a RINO (Republican in name only) or a moderate Republican. But that’s not completely true. He should have always been classified as a liberal Republican - or, as it is more typically known, a Rockefeller Republican.

The history of Rockefeller Republicanism dates to World War II. These “liberals of the right” supported many New Deal policies, civil rights and a strong welfare state. They also favored high tax levels, long-term economic-growth strategies and increased funding of infrastructure programs.

New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey was the first liberal Republican to gain national prominence during his failed 1944 and 1948 presidential campaigns. Liberal Republicans eventually gained some political influence when their chosen candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was elected president in 1952 and 1956.

Yet the rise of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller - who ran for president unsuccessfully in 1960, 1964 and 1968 - shifted liberal Republicans directly into his camp. His popular appeal increased when he became vice president under Gerald Ford - and brought a whole new generation of politicians under the Rockefeller Republican banner.

This would also include Mr. Specter. A former Democrat, he switched to the Republican Party in 1965 - during Mr. Rockefeller’s heyday - and was elected to the Senate in 1980, just a few years after Mr. Rockefeller left the White House. From the very beginning, he had serious policy disagreements with senior Republicans and was not opposed to speaking out against his party, leaders and even Republican presidents.

Does this career-long independent streak mean Mr. Specter was part of the moderate Republican wing? The media believed this to be so, and the senator also believed this to be so. But I don’t think so.

The Republican Party has its share of moderates, including Arizona’s Sen. John McCain and Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe. While they may criticize some of their own party’s ideas, and hold some very liberal ones to boot, they tend to support crucial issues and votes. It’s not a perfect union, to be sure, and they’ve disappointed their caucus on more than a few occasions. But for the most part, they are onside.

This has never been the case with Mr. Specter. His reactionary political behavior is classic Rockefeller Republican strategic messaging. It’s the desire to fight against conservative Republicans as well as the political and economic principles of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and the Bush family. In addition, he always shielded himself from extensive criticism by occasionally toeing the party line and claiming to work for the people of Pennsylvania.

In fact, Mr. Specter’s reasons for remaining a Republican in recent years seem to be purely based on a thirst for political power. As he told the Hill newspaper in March, “I think each of the 41 Republican senators, in a sense, and I don’t want to overstate this, is a national asset, because if one was gone, you would only have 40. The Democrats would have 60, and they would control all of the mechanisms of government.” Hence, Mr. Specter likely left the Republican Party when he felt betrayed that he, as a self-described “national asset,” was being challenged - and would likely lose - the Republican senatorial nomination to a conservative, former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey.

Long story short, Mr. Specter’s decision to return to the Democrats was not caused by a sudden political epiphany or the Republicans moving to the right. The U.S. political landscape has been realigning since Mr. Reagan’s second term. Instead, it just took Mr. Specter longer than most to realize that while moderate Republicans have a role to play in the party, the few remaining Rockefeller Republicans have nothing to contribute to the development of modern conservative values and principles.

Farewell, Mr. Specter. And good riddance.

Michael Taube is a public affairs analyst and commentator and a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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