Expert Opinion: Rogers M. Smith on Sen. Specter’s Party Switch

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…And on the 99th day, the political gods delivered Arlen Specter.

President Obama received an unexpected gift on the eve of his 100th day in office when Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter announced that he was leaving the Republican Party to join the Democrats.

A Republican since 1966, Specter said he was exiting the GOP because he finds his political philosophy “more in line with Democrats than Republicans” and he is unwilling to have his 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. Obama responded that he is eager to receive Specter’s counsel and advice.

Specter’s switch could have untold ramifications for both parties, the country and the initiatives set forth by the Obama administration. Rogers M. Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and chair of the Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism Program Executive Committee, offers his insights on Specters reasons for the switch, its repercussions and whether the country should be concerned about one-party rule.

Q: Were you surprised by Specter’s announcement or could you see this coming?

A: I was surprised. I had not been consciously anticipating this but as soon as the announcement was made, it was instantly clear why this made sense for him. We all knew that he was not likely to survive a primary challenge from Pat Toomey so moving to the Democratic Party was clearly his best option. And ideologically, although he’s independent, he was as close to the current Democrats as he is the current Republicans, at least. But what I didn’t know – and I don’t think any of us knew – is that he’d been having discussions with Joe Biden, who is a longtime friend of his, that facilitated this transition.

Q: Do you think Republicans were genuinely happy to see Specter leave the party?

A: There are some hard-line conservatives that were happy but I suspect most Republicans are not happy because anytime they’re losing a senator and the Democrats are strengthening their majority in the Senate and their control of all three branches of government, this just cannot be good news for the Republican Party. There are some who believe that by establishing themselves as true conservatives, they can [regain] the appeal that they think Reagan had, but Ronald Reagan also endorsed what he called the 11th Commandment – thou shalt not speak ill of any other Republican – because Reagan understood that to have a winning coalition you had to have some people in the party with whom you disagreed.

Q: If most experts say only a moderate Republican Senate candidate can win Pennsylvania, and Republicans had Specter, a well-liked moderate, already in the Senate, why would they be so eager to push him out and replace him with a conservative, Toomey, whom experts doubt can win?

A: The primary electorate is very different from the general election electorate. It’s true in both parties that the primary voters are disproportionately their party’s ideological purists. And so the kinds of hard-line conservatives that have always been unhappy with Arlen Specter, they play a bigger role in the primary process, far more than they would in the general election. And this was compounded by the fact that he was one of the three [Republican senators] that voted for the stimulus bill, and many Republicans saw that as a betrayal of their party politically and a betrayal of their party’s principles. So in addition to the hardcore conservatives who never liked Specter, there were now a lot of other Republican Party members and voters who felt he stabbed them in the back, and so that meant winning the primary was very tough for him, even though he would probably be more likely to win the general election than Pat Toomey.

Q: President Obama announced almost immediately that he would support Specter in next year’s Democratic primary. Why are the Democrats so motivated to keep Specter in the Senate? Won’t a Democrat most likely win the seat anyway?

A: I do think that Biden played an important role here in that I think he genuinely likes and respects Specter and personally wanted him in the Democratic Party, but it’s also true that…as an example of a Republican who has decided that Democrats are better, [Specter] is likely to be more of an asset to the Democrats nationally than a new and relatively unknown freshman Democratic senator would be.

Q: With Specter’s switch and the possible seating of Al Franken, Democrats will reach the so-called magical 60-vote number. Is this 60-vote number as much a big deal as everyone says?

A: I don’t think it’s such a big deal. I think that the Democrats still will not have 60 cohesive, reliable votes on a lot of controversial issues. Democrats are divided on the foreign policy issues – Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, the Middle East. Democrats don’t have overwhelming agreement on a variety of the economic measures that the administration is pushing. Certainly it will help the administration to have 60 Democratic senators but there is still enough ideological diversity in the Democratic ranks that it’ll still be challenging to the administration, especially because the Republicans have shown that they will vote cohesively to block Obama on a lot of issues. And the defection of Specter will only reinforce that.

Q: Senate Minority Leader McConnell said that the Democrats having 60 votes is a threat to the country that will disrupt the theory of checks and balances. Do you view one party having so much power as a negative for the country?

A: I think it’s true that if we move toward effectively one-party government, that that could be dangerous in a lot of ways, although I’m sure that if Mitch McConnell’s Republicans were in the same position as the Democrats, he would not be sounding these alarms. The reality is the only way that a party can get such control of our government is if it has broad popular support, and in a democracy people with broad popular support are suppose to set policy on most issues. Having said that, we know from the experience of FDR that American voters do get anxious if any one party seems to have too much power, so McConnell’s appeal with resonate with some voters. When people feel that any one party or system is beginning to become too dominant, that in itself is a source of opposition, so I think McConnell is likely to be speaking these present concerns that lots of Americans will have, but for that very reason I don’t think we’re going to see any real danger from the Democrats have a formal 60-vote majority.

Originally published on May 21, 2009