The Meaning of Specter’s Switch

Forty-four years after he left the Democratic Party to launch his political career, Arlen Specter is returning to the fold

Forty-four years after he left the Democratic Party to launch his political career, Arlen Specter is returning to the fold in an effort to save it, announcing just moments ago that he will leave the Republican Party and seek re-election in Pennsylvania next year as a Democrat. Among the implications of this move:

* The most talked about will be that Democrats, once Al Franken is finally seated, will have their coveted 60-seat super-majority, allowing them to shut down Republican filibusters. For Democrats, the timing couldn't be any better, with Senate Republicans threatening to use filibusters on mundane matters to grind the Senate to a halt in the coming months. This would have been retribution for the Democrats' decision (at the Obama White House's urging) to use reconciliation, a filibuster-bypassing device typically reserved for budget matters, to pass health-care legislation. Provided all Democrats are present on the floor and united, Republicans will now be deprived of their filibuster threat—radically reducing their clout in the Senate through (at least) the 2010 elections.

* Ironically, this might make the health-care reconciliation debate obsolete. Again, with 60 votes, a united Democratic caucus will now be able to pass health care legislation without having to make any deals with any Republicans. (Whether this kind of unity can actually be attained on health care is another question, but it is now theoretically possible.)

* Specter's immediate insistence that he will run next year as a Democrat suggests that he has already cut a deal for key Democratic support. He has longstanding friendships with Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Vice President Joe Biden, both of whom tried unsuccessfully to coax him to switch parties a few months ago.

At the same time, organized labor tried to entice Specter by promising to support him in a '10 primary—provided he stood with them on "card check" legislation. But Specter didn't do that, a decision that essentially killed card check. But with Biden and Rendell by his side, Specter might still have a chance to win labor over—or at least to wrest a grudging agreement that they won't openly oppose him in a primary next year.

Grateful Senate Democrats, along with an equally appreciative White House, are now huge allies for Specter heading into '10. They will almost certainly throw their weight behind him, making the waters very inhospitable for any potentially serious primary challengers. Plus, Specter's standing with rank-and-file Democratic voters will greatly increase now; this will look like a principled, dramatic and highly consequential move to them. He may not have much difficulty convincing them to rally around him next year.

* Will Pat Toomey stay in the race? Toomey's challenge to Specter, which grew out of Specter's pivotal support for the stimulus bill earlier this year, forced Specter's hand—polls had Toomey running 14 points (at least) ahead of Specter in next year's G.O.P. primary. The '10 G.O.P. primary had become a lost cause for Specter. But now what? Toomey may have been well-positioned to win the primary, but he'd be a poor statewide general election candidate in a state that has soured on the national Republican Party; there's little reason to think he'd fare any better than Rick Santorum, who lost by nearly 20 points in his 2006 Senate re-election campaign. The climate in Pennsylvania hasn't changed much since then. But if the G.O.P. tries to recruit a more compelling fall candidate, will Toomey yield? If he presses ahead, he will be tough to beat; the G.O.P. universe is smaller and more conservative than ever, and to these voters, he's something of a folk hero—the "true conservative" who stood up to Arlen Specter.

* Specter issued a statement noting that the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that "I now find my philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans." But the signs have been there for a while. Specter actually ran for the G.O.P. presidential nomination in 1996 (well, he actually only campaigned in 1995) in a campaign that stressed his cultural liberalism. He regularly denounced the religious right and claimed that the party was being "held hostage" by a fringe, ultra-conservative element. But his campaign gathered no traction and he was routinely booed by Republican audiences when he spoke. It was pretty clear then that he was in the wrong party.

The Meaning of Specter’s Switch