Dear Zell Miller

So I’m sitting at my kitchen computer here in Georgia, still a beet-red state, one day after Senator Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democratic party, and after taking it all in for a day, I’m wondering what you think, with the benefit of hindsight, of this:

Cover of 'A National Party No More'

If I were a betting man, Zell, I’d be willing to place a not-inconsiderable wager that you sorta wish you could recall all existing copies of this book and use one of those little flashy-pen things that Will Smith used in Men In Black to make us all forget you’d ever written it. Not that I think you’re wanting to return to the Democratic party, Zell – or that the party would have you back after your spittle-flecked performance at the GOP convention in 2004, in which your twisted and visibly angry visage reminded viewers of nothing so much as old photos of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, even inspiring one young Paduan Photoshopper to give us this. But I digress…a few more thoughts about Arlen Specter’s not-so-surprising “surprise announcement” after the fold:

So. Arlen Specter is now correctly identified as (D-PA) instead of (R-PA). What does this really mean? I dunno, obviously – only time will tell. But I’ve heard reactions from Democrats ranging from elation to mopery, and from Republicans which cover almost the same range, oddly. However, there do seem to be some differences. Truth be told, I’m personally more on the “mopery” end of the scale in terms of what Democrats are actually getting in Arlen Specter, for a few reasons:

  • He’s 79 years old and a cancer survivor. That may make him tough-as-nails, but it also makes him an old man with a known history of serious medical problems. There’s no telling how much he’s got left in him. Certainly, he wouldn’t bother switching parties if he weren’t thinking of another term. He obviously is thinking about it, given his choice yesterday. But it’s anybody’s guess how long he’ll remain in the Senate.
  • He has spent the last 29 years as a Republican. This one wasn’t lost on many people, but I’m surprised at just how willing the Democratic leadership in the Senate appears to be to bend over backwards to not only welcome Specter the Defecter (which would be appropriate), but also to accommodate him in ways which they’ve done with no other Senator, such as assuring him that he will retain all his seniority and committee assignments and rankings. That’s nuts: Specter, in the blink of an eye, becomes the 8th-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, behind only war horses like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, etc. I don’t think Harry Reid, et. al. should completely strip Specter of his perks and make him start over as a rank freshman again – which they most certainly should have done with Joe Lieberman – but based upon their statements and actions, I get the impression that the Democratic leadership isn’t as aware of the best way to play Specter, if they want to assure the best outcome from this switch. And that brings me to my biggest….not “objection,” necessarily – for in truth I don’t really object to Specter’s choice – but rather caution and worry:
  • He has spent the last 29 years as a Republican. Yeah, I know – that’s the same thing as #2, above. Consider it like a sort of Fight Club thing – (“The first rule of Fight club is, you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club!“) But consider this: quite aside from the fact that the Democratic leadership in the Senate appears to be hunky-dory with letting Specter cut ahead in the seniority line in front of other younger and more junior Senators who came up the hard way – by beating an incumbent Republican in their own states, and who (many of them) far more exemplify the values of the Democratic party than Arlen Specter does or ever will, there’s the matter of what we’re getting in Arlen Specter, especially when compared to what we could have been getting in Pennsylvania.

Sure, Specter brings with him a wealth of knowledge about how to get things done in Washington. His rolodex is one of the deepest, and he knows virtually everyone. They also know him. In short, he’s a familiar figure. But most of his rolodex consists of GOP contacts, fundraisers, etc – people who won’t touch him with a barge pole after yesterday’s announcement. That renders his ability to “get things done” highly compromised. Just Specter’s presence as a controversial, or “swing” vote on various legislation may serve as a reminder to the Republicans of his perceived betrayal, and make them thereby even more intransigent, if such a thing is possible, than they already are. Whatever cachet he may have had once as a “moderate” will be essentially neutralized by his polarizing effect upon Senate Republicans from here on out. And – worst of all – he’s already signaled that he won’t be changing many (if any) of his already-taken stances. In yesterday’s announcement, he reiterated his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. Democrats were all a-twitter (literally and figuratively) yesterday about how as soon as Al Franken is seated (which he will be, it’s all over in Minnesota but the shouting and squawking of Coleman’s last gasps now), they’d have that magical sixty votes necessary to finally unlock the gridlock that Republicans have been forcing upon them – and by extension, us – ever since Democrats re-took control of both houses of Congress in January 2007. For anyone who’s not aware, the filibuster used to be used sparingly by the opposition party, as a tool to register the power of the minority party only in unusual cases where they found themselves united strongly in opposition to a bill being pushed by the majority. It’s a tool in the Senate which is supposed to – by gentlemen’s agreement – not be resorted to on every vote, which is what the Republicans have been doing for two years. In the last two-year session, the GOP beat the old record for most filibusters in a session less than a year through the term, and finished the term with more than double the previous record of filibusters in a term.

That’s why Democrats have been pushing so hard for that sixtieth vote in the Senate, and why Republicans have been so eager to deny it to them: because it’s the only way that the GOP has managed to continue to force their agenda on a country that has voted decisively for change in not one, but both of the last two elections. All that talk on the TV and in newspapers and magazines about the GOP being the party of “no” isn’t just the usual windbaggery from the talking heads; it’s the truth. And now, with the defection of Specter to the “other team,” many Democrats are thinking that they’re now on Easy Street, as soon as Al Franken is sworn in.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near that easy. Specter even admitted at his press conference yesterday that the reason he was switching was because he had realize there was no way he could win in an upcoming Republican primary. Last time around, he narrowly defeated Pat Toomey, a darling of the far-far-far right and former President of the Club for Growth. This time around, because of Specter’s perceived “betrayal” in voting for the stimulus package, early polling all showed him heading for a decisive thumping at Toomey’s hands. As Specter observed yesterday also, the GOP has, in the last twenty or so years, moved far to the right. Every party has its extremists, always have, always will. But they’re usually a tiny fraction, and they aren’t typically found inside the highest levels of decision-making (or public office) in the party apparatus. The John Birch society isn’t new, but never before in the history of the GOP – or any other party – have people of that ilk been so much in control of the party apparatus. For crying out loud, Rick Perry in Texas is talking about secession, after only 100 days of the Obama Presidency. Secession! He can’t possibly be uneducated enough to not know that the last time we tried that, it ended rather badly, with over 600,000 of our countrymen dead. Yet here he is – aided and abetted by a good chunk of the FOX News chatterers and “luminaries” of the far right like Limbaugh and Ann Coulter – talking openly and seriously about secession, or even hinting at revolution. This, at a time when opinion polls (as well as the last two elections) show the average voter repudiating the legacy of those sorts of policies from the Bush years in startlingly high numbers. That’s why the GOP is shrinking in party-identification surveys, why they’ve lost the majority of the governorships throughout the country, and why they seem to be concentrated heavily but very narrowly in the south and what’s known as the Mormom/militia corridor: Montana through Utah and the surrounding areas. “A National Party No More,” indeed. You got it right, Zell….only about the wrong party. Yet the GOP appears hell-bent on pouring gas, not water, on those flames. Moderates in the GOP – which is now defined as anyone NOT in the mold of a David Vitter or a John Cornyn – are excoriated and ridiculed as “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only), and given primary challengers which force them to spend most of their war chests in the primary race, leaving them battered and far behind on available cash for the general election, where they are defeated by Democrats. This was Lincoln Chaffee’s fate, and he’s not the only one. It would have been Arlen Specter’s fate, too – no doubt about it. I’m not just speculating, I know it…and Specter does too, or he would not have done what he did yesterday. I promise you, if Specter thought he could eke out a win against ultra-right winger Pat Toomey, he’d have stayed. But as he himself said yesterday, he wasn’t willing to let his 29 year record in the Senate be decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.

And, as much as I enjoy the imagery of a very visible long-time Republican standing up in public and saying those things (which I have been saying in different words for at least six years now), and as much as it wasn’t a surprise to hear of Specter’s announcement, I’m not sure this is a good thing. Had Specter not switched – or had Democrats refused to take him – he would unquestionably have been defeated by Toomey. But Pennsylvania has been trending liberal lately, not conservative, just like much of the country has. There’s still that lower, rural part that’s often refered to somewhat derisively as “Pennsyltuckey,” in which there are indeed many very conservative Republicans of the sort which would turn out in droves to help Toomey beat more-moderate Specter…but they’re not enough – not nearly – to balance out not only the Democrats themselves, but the large chunk of PA independents, who would (correctly) view Toomey as an extremist who would be preferable only if the Democrats ran someone even more extreme. In such a case, the Democrats would almost certainly have picked up that Senate seat in Pennsylvania, and been able to do so with someone in the Sherrod Brown or even Sheldon Whitehouse mold. They wouldn’t have needed to try to field a Lieberman-esque figure, because Pennsylvanians, faced with a choice between a mainstream Democrat – even a fairly liberal one – and a guy like Toomey whose pedigree is certifiably from the fever-swamps of the right wing, would have given the Democrats a true progressive as a Senator in PA.

Instead, we have Arlen Specter, no progressive by any stretch. Yes, he can “get things done” in Washington – he knows where everything is, and whom to call, meaning he wouldn’t need the typical period of getting used to things which freshmen Senators usually require – but I doubt he’s much different today than he was two days ago. There are some people who believe that Specter would have voted even more moderately than he has in the past few years, were it not from pressure from the GOP whip, and pressure from within the party. I frankly doubt to what extent this is true. Sure, people can have their arms twisted on certain votes, but there’s a reason he ran with that R after his name for so long: he AGREED WITH THEIR PRINCIPLES AND GOALS. That can’t be overstated. I will be nothing short of shocked if Specter turns out to have been a Democrat in disguise all this time, morphing overnight from an ugly GOP caterpillar into a beautiful Democratic butterfly. I just don’t see it – and Specter even said as much in his press conference. Compare that to the scenario I just described: Toomey beats Specter in the primary, Toomey loses to REAL Democrat in the general election.

I don’t have any actual names to insert there in place of the generic “real Democrat” label – but there are plenty of them. It’s possible, I suppose, that the Democrats could shoot themselves in the foot by nominating someone with undiscovered ethical troubles, or an undisclosed past in a guerilla leftist group (which comes to light in the campaign), thereby allowing Toomey to win…but I doubt it. In all likelihood, this is the tradeoff we just made: we “traded away” a first-round draft pick from among a pretty deep roster of very good Democrats, for an old, cantankerous Republican turncoat who flat-out said he would still oppose one of the most important goals of the Democrats this term: the Employee Free Choice Act, in the very speech he gave announcing his “change of heart.”

Only time will tell how many more – if any – surprises Arlen Specter has up his sleeve as the most newly-minted Democrat in the Senate (though instantly the 8th most senior one, at the same time, grrrr…). But I think that some analysts predictions that Specter’s just been bursting with repressed desire to vote against some of the things he’d felt forced to vote for (and vice-versa) as a Republican, are far less likely to be among Specter’s surprises than is the not-so-surprising discovery that he is – surprise! – still a Republican (albeit not an insane one) who switched parties in name only, as his only means of saving his own political skin. He even told you that’s why he was doing it. And Senate Democrats should remember it.

My advice (not that anyone reads this who might be in a position to care) is that Democrats tell Specter (behind closed doors, if necessary) that they will need for him to show them that he is an ACTUAL Democrat, by voting for the major legislation which is now certain to be fast-tracked due to the numerical change in the Senate….or they WILL allow a primary challenge to him in 2010.  As of yesterday, it appeared that Harry Reid was already starting the process of taking that off the table….which is a flat-out mistake. The mistake the GOP made in running such an aggressive primary from such a far-right challenger against Specter is that you don’t employ those sort of heavy-handed tactics in politics, except when the people you’re employing them upon have nowhere else to go. Specter DID have somewhere else to go: to the Democrats. I don’t know if the GOP nationally or in PA wrongly guessed that he wouldn’t take that step, or whether they’re (as I suspect) more interested in purifying the party so it contains only adherents to the “true” (i.e. – far right) faith, but either way, they should have known that Specter was not without options. But that’s not the case anymore. As of yesterday, the GOP will shun him like the plague. He has burned his bridges with his old party, and even though he may vote with them occasionally in his shiny new future as a “Democrat,” they wouldn’t officially take him back now, even if he begged them to. That makes Specter’s situation right now a very different one from just two days ago, in terms of what leverage can be employed against him, and the Democrats should realize that and use it to their advantage. They could have had a genuine Democrat in Specter’s seat in two years; they should remind him of this fact, and make him keenly aware that his continued possession of the seat will depend upon the degree to which he acts as if HE were a genuine Democrat when voting time comes.

In recent years, Specter has been called a Republican in name only by the far right within his former party. Here’s hoping that his sudden switch doesn’t mean that he is a Democrat in name only, and especially let’s all hope that the 60-vote threshold Democrats think they just crossed isn’t 60 votes in name only.