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Published: Saturday, 5/2/2009

Rigid Republicans

ARLEN Specter, who was elected to the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania five times as a Republican, will seek a sixth term next year as a Democrat.

This is not the first party switch for Mr. Specter, who was a Democrat until 1965, when party bosses in Philadelphia denied him the opportunity to run for district attorney. He switched to the GOP and won. Mr. Specter has been a slightly left-leaning centrist in his 29 years in the Senate (his lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 44.5 per cent), but, like Pennsylvania, has been moving left in recent years (his 2008 ACU rating was 28 percent).

He hadn't changed. His party had, Senator Specter said in a statement announcing his party switch: "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan big tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right."

Mr. Specter has been regarded by most as an intelligent and effective senator, but one who puts no principle ahead of his own advancement. The proximate cause of his party switch was a poll showing him trailing former Rep. Pat Toomey, whom he narrowly defeated in 2004, by 21 points in next year's Republican primary.

"I think it's pretty clear that Specter is an unprincipled hack," wrote Jonathan Chait in the liberal New Republic magazine. "If his best odds of keeping his Senate seat lay in joining the Communist Party, he'd probably do that."

I'd supported Mr. Specter in 2004, though I like Pat Toomey, whose views are much closer to my own. But Mr. Specter was, I thought, conservative enough, and much more likely to win in the general election.

Mr. Specter also received strong support in that primary from former President George W. Bush and Pennsylvania's conservative GOP senator, Rick Santorum, which makes the shots he took at the GOP in his press conference last week churlish as well as self-serving. (I wonder if the ads Mr. Bush cut endorsing Mr. Specter will get a reprise in next year's Democratic primary.)

The last straw for me, and for most Pennsylvania Republicans, was Mr. Specter's vote for the porkalooza, a.k.a. the $787 billion "stimulus" bill. Even a big tent has to have boundaries.

Mr. Specter's defection triggered squeals of glee among journalists who see it as the death knell for the GOP in the Northeast. "Northeast Republicans have gone from an endangered species to a nearly extinct species," the Washington Post said in a news analysis Tuesday.

When one considers that the governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont are Republicans; that Republicans are leading in the polls for New Jersey governor and for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Chris Dodd in Connecticut, that epitaph seems premature. But why let facts get in the way of a favored story line?

Mr. Specter's party switch also inspired glee among conservatives who believe in addition by subtraction; who think that throwing out of the party all who do not agree with them entirely on every issue will make the GOP more popular.

There's little doubt that ideological rigidity played a role in the thumpings Republicans have taken in the last two elections. You can be against illegal immigration without being anti-Mexican, and pro-traditional marriage without being anti-gay.

But the primary reasons for the GOP's fall from grace were its abandonment of fiscal responsibility and the unwillingness of Mr. Bush to effectively defend the policies which have kept us safe since 9/11/01.

Journalists say the way for Republicans to become more popular is to be more like Democrats. Many beltway Republicans agree. But Republicans ran a moderate for president last year. That didn't work out so well.

"In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, was seen by voters as more likely to deliver tax cuts than Republican nominee John McCain," noted pollster Scott Rasmussen.

If President Obama is as popular in 18 months as he is today, 2010 will be another grim year for Republicans. But as the economy worsens, and the consequences of his reckless spending at home and his groveling to dictators abroad have yet to be felt.

Republicans are more likely to return to grace if they stand civilly but forthrightly on their principles than if they present themselves as Obama-lite.



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