My immediate reaction yesterday when I heard the news report that Sen. Arlen Specter had changed his party affiliation from (R) to (D):  a shouted “Yes!” and a fist pump. 

Beyond that, almost everything has already been said in the media whirlwind of the last 24 hours, but I thought I’d share a little personal perspective anyway.

I’m not a diehard partisan. I have no formal affiliation with any party; as an Illinoisan, my voter registration doesn’t require it. I’ve voted for Democrats, Republicans, and third-party candidates for a variety of offices over the years, up to and including the presidency. 

But I do have strong political and ideological principles, based around progressive views of social and economic justice. And therefore I’m inclined to vote for Democratic candidates more often than not, so long as the party and the candidates support decently progressive policies more often than not.

The Democratic party as a whole (all the moreso now with Specter in it) is certainly more cautious and centrist than I personally would prefer, as a matter of my own principles. (I can’t fathom why any elected Dems oppose cap-and-trade greenhouse gas legislation, for instance, or card-check union elections.) But politics is the art of compromise; much as I’d love to have everyone see things my way, I don’t actually ever expect it. And all else being equal, I’d certainly rather have the moderates working with us than against us.

This is something the GOP leadership seems to have forgotten. 

There are lots of problems with America’s two-party political structure, and the left-right dichotomy it imposes on complicated issues. But it has the strength of historical inertia, and it’s not going away any time soon. Given that, you might think that people whose careers depend on it would understand how it works.

Political positions and parties are conceptualized as left or right of the “center.” But that center isn’t some fixed, objective marker. If it can be defined at all, it represents the peak of the bell curve of public opinion. That shifts over time.

In terms of party affiliations, that peak views itself as predominantly “independent”… but in terms of practical voting behavior, in recent elections it has been leaning strongly toward the Democratic side of the aisle. And the Democratic party has been receptive:  looking at both its voters and its elected officials, it obviously includes a large number of centrists and “moderates” and a small smattering of conservatives, as well as a wide distribution trailing off further toward the political “left,” narrowing as it goes.

Chart the Republican party, by way of contrast, and we see that it’s concentrated itself in an anomalous statistical lump far to the right of center. The officeholders in that position win great loyalty from the voters in that position (and the former even have a somewhat disproportionate presence in office thanks to gerrymandering), but all told there aren’t enough of either to achieve political dominance. And folks positioned outside that lump have quite simply been made unwelcome. 

Specter was once in the mainstream of his party; today he’s at its margins, and ideologues from within have mounted a primary challenge intended to expunge him. Whether one sees the GOP’s circling-of-the-wagons as involving “principles” or not (I certainly don’t, but its anti-tax and culture-war zealots argue vociferously) is really beside the point. The point is, it clearly excludes anyone who doesn’t meet a particular ideological litmus test, and thereby marginalizes itself electorally. 

If you want to be a majority party, you have to find ways to serve the needs and represent the interests of a majority of voters. Simple as that.

The details of how Specter decided to switch are illuminating. According to the New York Times

the vice president was at the center of the effort to convince Mr. Specter to change parties. They said that this has been the subject of years of bantering and discussion between the two men – who often sat together while riding the Amtrak train back home – but that the conversation turned earnest after Mr. Biden lobbied Mr. Specter to vote with the White House on the stimulus bill.

Clearly, Specter’s from the old school where you could actually talk civilly with someone on the other side of the aisle. That alone disqualifies him from today’s GOP. Yay Biden!

So, what happens next? This makes 59 Democratic seats; 60 is enough to stand off any GOP attempt to filibuster legislation, even under Harry Reid’s weak-kneed leadership. And notwithstanding his assertions of independence, Specter will certainly be inclined to vote with the party he caucuses with more often than not, especially if he expects to win the loyalty of Democratic donors and voters in next year’s primary. So while more would always be nice, one more seat is all it’ll take to make a real difference in advancing the Obama administration’s policy agenda.

That seat is likely to go to Al Franken. He’s still battling legal challenges from Norm Coleman, but there’s no reasonable doubt at this point that he won a (very close) victory in Minnesota. The state Supreme Court will be hearing Coleman’s appeal on June 1, but few expect it to do anything other than endorse the lower court’s finding for Franken. After that, all that remains is for Gov. Tim Pawlenty to certify the results… and although Pawlenty is a Republican, he’d have to come up with some unprecedentedly audacious pretext to refuse that certification. So, by the beginning of summer, that tipping-point vote is likely to be in place.

It could happen even sooner. With Specter gone, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the moderates from Maine, are even more isolated in their party than they were before. If either one has entertained thoughts of switching parties, the time to do that would be now—while Franken’s seat remains merely a likelihood rather than a reality. After that, their bargaining power reduces to virtually nothing.

In ordinary times, I’m inclined to agree with the general proposition that a divided government makes for more mature and deliberative policymaking. But these are far from ordinary times. The course we’ve been on has been disastrous and must be changed, quickly and dramatically, and to that end we need a government that can get things done. The GOP has been moving away from anything “mature and deliberative” for years, and the party today stands only for obstructionism, not constructive debate. If its influence can be reduced to match its intellectual irrelevance, that’s all to the good.

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