Democrats should heed the lesson the GOP forgot: An open mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Notes from the political sidelines.
April 29 2009 3:55 PM

Binge, Don't Purge

With Specter's switch, Democrats should heed the lesson the GOP forgot: An open mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Washington loves to talk about crossing the aisle, and yesterday Sen. Arlen Specter actually did it. Senate Democrats hadn't seen such manna from heaven since May 2001, when Jim Jeffords left the GOP and took the Senate majority with him. David Axelrod had jokingly dismissed President Obama's 100th day as a "Hallmark holiday"—and on the 99th day, the greeting cards were flying. "Welcome," Majority Leader Harry Reid told Specter. "We are thrilled to have you," agreed Obama.

Specter's departure is yet another distress call for Republicans. In the same way that 25 years ago the South soured on the national Democratic brand and spurred a mass of party defections, the Republican brand has now gone south in the Northeast and will not soon recover.

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But if the most recent New Democrat is a welcome gift, indeed, for the Democratic Party, the Specter story should serve as a cautionary tale as well. Specter left the GOP because it abandoned the sensible center and stopped trying to be a Big Tent, thanks to conservative activists who were bound and determined to send moderates like him packing, no matter how much it hurt their party's interests. The object lesson is clear: Setting out to purge your party of independent thinkers won't make it stronger, but it will drive off enough independents to make your party smaller.

Democrats should take that lesson to heart. This morning, prominent bloggers Chris Bowers and Markos Moulitsas greeted Specter with considerably less than a Hallmark welcome. Bowers complained that the switch "doesn't help progressives at all" and called Specter "the Democrat Most Deserving of a Primary Challenge." He failed to note the obvious irony in pushing Democrats to adopt the very strategy conservative ideologues had used to send Specter running into our arms: a concerted campaign to purge nonideologues who dare to buck orthodoxy or express occasional dissent.

Pat Toomey, whose conservative primary challenge forced Specter's hand, is the GOP's foremost expert on party purges. He nearly upset Specter in a 2004 Senate primary and has spent the past four years as president of the ironically named Club for Growth, which specializes in attacking Republican moderates in primaries in order to nominate conservatives more likely to lose general elections. Perversely, some liberal activists want to adopt the same approach and run primary challenges against moderate Democrats in any state to the left of Utah and Nebraska.

Toomeyism has been a disaster for Republicans and would be an even dumber strategy for a party with as much reach as Democrats have under Obama. It's particularly counterproductive in a state as politically diverse as Pennsylvania, a state James Carville once described as "two cities separated by Alabama." The state's Democratic roster would make Carville proud. Bob Casey, the junior senator, is conservative on social issues and progressive on economics. Specter is progressive on social issues and conservative on economics. Gov. Ed Rendell is moderate on social issues and moderate on economics. The Pennsylvania congressional delegation and state legislature teem with equally intriguing Democratic stars on the rise.

Senate Democratic leaders, who count noses for a living, understand why a Big Tent holds up better than a small, collapsing one. Two years ago, pro-choice advocates tried to persuade Harry Reid and Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Chair Chuck Schumer not to endorse Casey, a pro-life Democrat. Reid and Schumer told them Casey would be the strongest candidate to oust Republican incumbent Rick Santorum. They were right: In a state John Kerry won by just 51 percent to 49 percent, Casey walloped Santorum by more than 17 points.

Arlen Specter won't toe the Democratic line on every issue, but the Democratic caucus will be stronger—and the Republican caucus weaker—now that he has switched sides. His change of heart is also an encouraging omen for Obama's effort to build a new, pragmatic, post-partisan politics. Back in 2000, George W. Bush based his campaign on an explicit appeal to change the tone in Washington. With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, however, the party quickly reverted to narrow ideological form. That's where Jim Jeffords got off.

In the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to put results ahead of party, and in office he has done his level best to persuade Washington to do the same. It will take longer than 100 days to get congressional Republicans to change bad habits, but Specter's decision is proof that Obama's open-door policy is paying off.

At times like these, even more than ever, Americans want both parties to work together and put the nation's interests first. If voters are forced to choose between a party of narrow minds and a party willing to listen to different points of view, they will make the same judgment as Arlen Specter: Open minds beat closed ones every time.

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.