Why Senator Specter Switched Parties — Really

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Evan Vucci / AP

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter's party switch highlights the growing marginalization of the hard-right Republican Party, now down to two moderates in the Senate. And it highlights the growing dominance of the post–George W. Bush Democratic Party, now just a Minnesota comedian away from a filibuster-proof majority. But let's not overthink: it mostly highlights the desperate opportunism of a 79-year-old five-term Senator staring into the abyss of involuntary retirement. Specter may be right that the GOP left him first, but that's just a face-saving way of admitting he couldn't win its primary.

It was not for lack of trying. In recent weeks, ever since conservative Club for Growth president Pat Toomey began talking about a Republican rematch, Specter has scrambled to the right. He suddenly renounced his support for union-backed "card check" legislation. He introduced a bill to establish a flat tax. He even voted for a federal spending freeze, which was particularly shameless, since he had just voted for President Barack Obama's stimulus bill, the ultimate antifreeze. Anyway, Republicans weren't buying it. Specter barely squeaked past Toomey in a primary six years ago, despite support from President Bush, and this time he would have been toast; one poll had him down 21 points.

"In the course of the last several months since the stimulus vote I have traveled the state and engaged the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls and have found that the prospects for winning the Republican primary are bleak," Specter said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

That's why Specter is bailing on the party he joined more than four decades ago to run for district attorney of Philadelphia. After talking to Republican leaders and his longtime Republican supporters, he said in his statement, "It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable." In other words: he knew he had no shot as a Republican, so voilà, he's a Democrat again. Even though he voted for Bush's judges, Bush's war, Bush's tax cuts — through the same "reconciliation" process he recently attacked Democrats for considering now — and most of the rest of Bush's agenda. Even though he's best known for trashing Anita Hill and for being one of the most obnoxious bosses on Capitol Hill.

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