Sen. Arlen Specter's surprise defection from the Republican Party to join the Democrats was the lead story in all the papers. Assuming that Al Franken is eventually seated as senator from Minnesota, that gives the Democrats a 60-person, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, which will ease passage of key Obama administration priorities like health care reform and capping carbon emissions. Political considerations motivated Specter's switch; he said internal polling showed that his chances of surviving a Republican primary challenge in 2010 were "bleak."
The Washington Post runs a Dan Balz analysis inside about what the move might mean for the Republican Party: "The question now is whether Specter's departure will produce a period of genuine introspection by a party already in disarray or result in a circling of the wagons by those who think the GOP is better off without those whose views fall outside its conservative ideological boundaries," he writes. "Specter's shocking departure may provide a wake-up call to Republicans that a broad reassessment is urgently needed."
"It is true that being a Republican moderate sometimes feels like being a cast member of 'Survivor'—you are presented with multiple challenges, and you often get the distinct feeling that you're no longer welcome in the tribe. But it is truly a dangerous signal that a Republican senator of nearly three decades no longer felt able to remain in the party," she wrote.
Mainstream Republicans, however, tried to put a brave, or defiant, face on the news. Most of the papers quote Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, saying Specter left "to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record." And USA Todaynotes that the Republican congressional campaign committee e-mailed a fundraising appeal citing Specter with the subject line "Good riddance."
This is not the first time Specter has changed parties; early in his political career he switched from the Democrats to the Republicans. USA Today digs up a nice tidbit from Specter's biography in which he called that move "almost like changing my religion." (The book, Passion for Truth, has a subtitle he may now regret: From Finding JFK's Single Bullet to Questioning Anita Hill to Impeaching Clinton. It's out of print but available for $0.01 from several sellers on Amazon.)
The move appeared to be effective immediately: The New York Times noticed that he sat on the Democratic side of the dais at a committee hearing shortly after his announcement.
Both the NYT and Post run front-page photos of 5-year-old Edgar Hernandez, whom the Mexican government has identified as the first person in Mexico to come down with the variant of swine flu that is threatening to become a global epidemic. It's not clear why the boy came down with the flu, but his hometown is host to large pig farms. The Wall Street Journalreports that new cases of the flu were found on four continents yesterday, and the number of cases confirmed in the United States rose to 66, including five people who were hospitalized. The Los Angeles Timestakes a more cautious tack and notes that the number of new cases in Mexico appears to be leveling off, and World Health Organization officials said that even if a pandemic occurs, it's likely to be mild.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials warned other countries not to ban U.S. pork as a result of the swine flu, the Post reported, and even tried a little rebranding. "This really isn't swine flu. It's H1N1 virus," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The U.S. "surge" in Afghanistan is going to target poppy-growing areas, the NYT says, and that will likely provoke bloody battles with the Taliban. Poppy growing is the main source of income for the insurgency, and U.S. commanders believe the Taliban is likely to fight hard to defend it. And their credibility is on the line, as well: Poppy farmers pay protection money to the Taliban and will expect the Taliban to hold up its end of the bargain when the U.S. disrupts the cultivation. What effect will this have on Afghan hearts and minds? The piece ends with a pessimistic kicker, an anecdote of some American soldiers on patrol stopping to talk to an Afghan farmer. "I'm very happy to see you," the farmer told the Americans. "Really?" one of the soldiers asked. "Yes," the farmer said. The interpreter sighed and spoke in English. "He's a liar."
But Afghanistan is receding in importance now: The recent advances by the Taliban in Pakistan are forcing the United States to recalibrate its new AfPak strategy to focus more heavily on Pakistan, reports the Post. Among the initiatives being considered is a plan for U.S. troops to train Pakistani soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques.
Also in the papers: The LAT Column One piece is a first-person account of a Times reporter who married an Iraqi staffer in the Baghdad bureau and was then unable to get permission to move with her to the United States. The Journal reports that Whittier, a suburb of Los Angeles, is exploring the possibility of drilling for oil to solve its budget problems. College cafeterias are doing away with trays, the NYT finds.