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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

On Aug. 11, 1971, John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York City, radiating calm and charm after a 10-day camping trip in Colorado and Utah, stepped before a crowd in the ballroom of Gracie Mansion to announce that he was becoming a Democrat. After explaining where he believed his party had gone astray—Vietnam, wiretapping, neglect of urban problems, and subservience to big business led the list—the 49-year-old mayor portrayed the decision as one forced on him by his party's own choices. "I regret that new directions cannot emerge from a Republican Party that has … stifled dissent and … rejected internal reform." Yet he insisted that he would retain the maverick streak that had come to characterize his place in the GOP. "I have no illusions about the Democratic Party," he said, "and I will work as a Democrat without abandoning my personal independence."

Editorialists were quick to note the cynicism behind Lindsay's move. The New York Times carped that it was "obviously triggered by his belief that he could not achieve higher office as a Republican." Lindsay, indeed, went on to run a fruitless campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination the next year. More notable than Lindsay's opportunism was his articulation of grievances shared by growing numbers of liberal Republicans, who felt that their party, under Richard Nixon, had become hostile to their values. A Republican majority may have been emerging, but it had no place for those, like Lindsay, who made civil rights and the arts their pet issues. In the next few years, many more liberal Republicans would leave the party over its stands on race, Vietnam, and abortion.

The stream that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with that trickle of defections slowed for a time, but it has now reached a watershed. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's decision yesterday to change parties reflects, by his own admission, a desire to improve his re-election prospects next year. Some critics are therefore already downplaying its significance, as they did with Lindsay. But because this move comes so late in Specter's career—born in 1930, he has been in politics since the 1960s and in the Senate since 1981—it can't be taken lightly.

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Specter's decision fits into a larger pattern. It follows the exit from the GOP of Sens. Jim Jeffords in 2001 and Lincoln Chafee in 2007 (after losing his re-election bid), to say nothing of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg the same year. Noteworthy, too, have been the endorsements of both John Kerry and Barack Obama by surprising numbers of Republicans. And despite Specter's Lindsay-esque avowal of independence—"My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. … I will continue my independent voting and follow my conscience on what I think is best for Pennsylvania and America"—his switch will more often than not give the Democrats their magic number of 60 Senate votes (once Minnesota's Al Franken is seated). For this reason, Specter's decision has, understandably, rocked the political world.

Historically, Specter's move is best understood as the signal event in the next stage of what the journalist Ronald Brownstein has called "The Great Sorting Out"—a gradual but massive sorting of voters and elected officials that has brought their partisan affiliation into close alignment with their ideology. In The Second Civil War (2007), Brownstein showed how over the last four decades "conservatives" have increasingly become Republicans and "liberals" increasingly Democratic—turning these once-motley coalitions into relatively uniform ideological vehicles. In 1970, 35 percent of Democrats called themselves liberal and 26 percent called themselves conservative. By 2000, 52 percent were liberal, only 17 percent conservative. The GOP saw a mirror-image change. The mere 9 percent of Republicans who called themselves liberal in 1970 dwindled to 6 percent in 2000; the 63 percent conservative portion grew to 77 percent.

This sorting out has transformed both parties, but for years it was the Democrats' losses that struck observers as the real news. As far back as the 1960s, even as Lindsay and other liberals were bolting the GOP, the Democrats' troubles seemed far graver—as white Southerners, Catholics, and blue-collar workers left the party in droves. This trend became a full-blown crisis in 1980 when Democratic votes helped elect Ronald Reagan and a Republican Congress, making the "Reagan Democrats" the demographic group of the decade. Bill Clinton wooed many of them back into the Democratic fold, but the tide continued to run in the GOP's favor in the 1990s, especially in the South. The changing of parties by national legislators, such as Richard Shelby of Alabama in 1994 and Billy Tauzin of Louisiana in 1995, mattered not because they were so numerous but because these switches vividly embodied a larger trend: steady gains by Republicans throughout the South as moderate-to-conservative Democrats (Sens. Sam Nunn, John Breaux, and Chuck Robb) gave way to staunchly right-wing Republicans (Sens. Saxby Chambliss, George Allen, and David Vitter).

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 media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.