April 29, 2009 at 8:15AM
by Jim DiPeso
The Democrats have a new senator named Arlen Specter.
A few observations, both short-term and long-term:
Specter's party switch nominally will make it easier to pass a climate bill with the 60 votes necessary to shut off filibusters. If and when the interminable Minnesota Senate race finally ends with comedian Al Franken clinging to a narrow lead, the Democrats will have reached the magic number of 60. Specter, however, like other conservative Democrats from coal-dependent states, won't necessarily be a slam-dunk vote for a cap-and-trade bill unless there are free allowances or other provisions to ease cost impacts.
Specter's record on environmental issues has been, at best, fair to middlin.' He tended to follow rather than lead, and it showed in his ho-hum numbers in Republicans for Environmental Protection's annual Congressional Scorecard. With new leaders to follow, perhaps his environmental voting record will change.
Specter's switch was motivated in part by his shaky re-election prospects for next year. Even though his Senate colleagues urged Pennsylvania Republicans to back Specter instead of his reactionary primary challenger, former Congressman Pat Toomey, Specter figured that continuing his Senate career would be better served by joining with the state's expanding cadre of Democrats rather than fighting its shriveling core of increasingly doctrinaire Republicans.
Still, Specter's commentary about the GOP's lurch to the hard right is a flashing red warning light for the party that Pennsylvania's senior senator has called home for nearly half a century.
You wouldn't know it by listening to the yammer of talk radio entertainers and other litmus test ideologues who are cheering Specter's departure. They've never liked Specter much, since in their view, he was insufficiently obsequious to their arrogance that conservatism can only be defined on their dogmatic terms. Somehow, they insist, a political calculus of division and exclusion will add up to majorities in future elections.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll belies the ideologues' fuzzy math. Only 21 percent of voters self-identify as Republicans, a 40 percent drop from only six years ago. While such numbers are fluid, it's hard to spin the downward trend as an indicator that the elephants are ready to storm back into a majority after two consecutive election debacles.
The attitude of the true believers that more of the same, only louder, is the ticket to victory does not create an auspicious environment for reassessing the state of the party and rethinking its attitudes on issues of concern to important constituencies who can help them win elections again.
The environment is one of those issues. Thoughtful conservative policies about climate or other environmental issues could find a receptive ear among suburban swing voters or among the young if they could be convinced that the bearers of those ideas sincerely care about good stewardship.
But creative new ideas and fresh new attitudes will never see the light if they are squashed by cocooned ideologues who insist that there are no more questions to be asked and there is nothing left to learn about good governance.
Arlen Specter, Democrat, concluded that he no longer has a future in such company.