Why Arlen Specter's defection should terrify the GOP.

Why Arlen Specter's defection should terrify the GOP.

Why Arlen Specter's defection should terrify the GOP.

The history behind current events.
April 29 2009 3:36 PM

Specter's Shadow

Why Arlen Specter's defection should terrify the GOP.

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With Specter's switch, it's now the Democrats' turn to reap the gains and the Republicans' turn to agonize about their future. The party is falling on hard times in states such as Oregon and Ohio, once bastions of liberal Republicanism, but even more catastrophically in the Northeast, from New England down through the mid-Atlantic. Besides the loss of Jeffords and Chafee, Republicans have recently seen longtime moderate legislators such as Chris Shays and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut go down to defeat—along with other New Englanders, like John Sununu Jr., who had few liberal leanings but whose constituents' Democratic politics nonetheless kept them tethered to the center. In the House and the Senate, blue has almost completely engulfed the Northeast. Even the statehouses of New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey—which stayed defiantly Republican through much of the 1990s, despite electoral trends—have reverted to Democratic control.

All of this marks a more dramatic change than many people realize. As Ed Kilgore of the Democratic Leadership Council wrote in 2001, after Jim Jeffords' flip, the 38 Republicans in the Senate in 1976 comprised some 17 who were liberals or moderates—including such historic names as Lowell Weicker, Charles Percy, Ed Brooke, Clifford Case, Jacob Javits, Richard Schweiker, and Charles Mathias. That roster doesn't even include such senators as Howard Baker or Bob Dole, who by the 1990s would be routinely labeled moderates. The vice president, moreover, was none other than the quintessential liberal Republican, former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Although conservatives scored a momentous victory in 1980, the Republican Party's liberal wing survived. Paradoxically, the GOP's majority status allowed moderates and even liberals to remain viable within it—giving some substance to what Specter claimed, with only minor exaggeration, amounted to a "Reagan Big Tent." When you're winning, it's easy to share the electoral wealth. Moderates accommodated themselves to the new environment by pledging fealty on the issues that mattered most to the far right: low taxes, militarism, opposition to abortion. Specter did his share of accommodating—until yesterday, most liberals associate him mainly with his harsh treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings. But the most visible example of this survival instinct was none other than George Bush Sr.—long ago regarded as a classic Yankee Republican. Having run against Reagan from the left in the 1980 presidential primaries, Bush jettisoned his aversion to supply-side economics and his support for reproductive rights and, by his 1988 presidential bid, embraced the fierce cultural politics of patriotism and law and order. His subsequent failure to govern as a hard-right conservative doomed him with the GOP's increasingly monolithic base.


Once conservatives controlled all three branches of government—with Tom DeLay running Congress and George Bush Jr. in the White House—liberal-to-moderate Republicans found themselves in deeper trouble. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argued in Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (2005), the congressional leadership isolated and punished moderates such as Marge Roukema of New Jersey—who, like Specter, was first elected in the 1980 Reagan sweep—by denying her a plum committee chairmanship and funding right-wing primary challenges. Worn down by it all, she retired. Elsewhere, too, groups ranging from the Club for Growth to the National Rifle Association to various Christian organizations actively channeled energy and money into enforcing a doctrinaire ideological purity within the GOP, squeezing out moderates. That some of these challenges met with success, driving the Republican Party further rightward, gave these activists the false impression that voters in the Northeast were hungry for zealotry. They weren't, and soon the conservatives' gains in the region were reversed.

Like John Lindsay's decision almost 40 years ago, Specter's defectionhighlights the dangers for a party that gambles its viability on the politics of polarization. For a few years after Sept. 11, an upwelling of militant nationalism allowed Republicans to tell themselves—and the country—that the American public was dogmatically conservative in its core beliefs and that liberals amounted to a fringe group confined to a few urban enclaves and the coasts. But even in the dark days of the Bush years, Democrats managed to continue expanding their tent, using Republican purists as foils for their own inclusiveness. Their party now spans a huge and healthy ideological range. The GOP cannot afford to lose more wheel horses like Arlen Specter, lest it become the fringe party, confined to the Deep South and interior West.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, has written for Slate since 1996. He is the author of several books of political history.