Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Arlen Specter

I've got a little bit to say on Specter, but nothing profound, so I'll try to just say it briefly. Two things jump out at me. The first is that all of the GOP types rejoicing at Specter's departure are simply being classless. Yes, Specter has been an unreliable vote, and yes his decision to jump parties was a nakedly self-interested attempt to keep his seat, rather than some principled decision based on the GOP's direction. However he's been a Republican for the last 40 years, and a Republican Senator for longer than I've been alive. He deserves a respectful exit if nothing else.
Secondly, we need a reminder that my 80% friend is not my 20% enemy. Reagan built his grand coalition by including plenty of people who were conservative on some issues but not others. Yes, his ability to articulate what conservatism stood for made some ideological converts, but he also united a lot of disparate interests. Unfortunately, the Republicans are on a kick to "purify" the party, rather than to get as many people into it as possible.

Conservatives feel that it was Bush's (and Congress') spending and compromises that got us where we are, coupled with McCain's lackluster centrism fetish. Therefore, they see the answer as kicking out the riffraff. The real problem though, is a lack of strong leadership. A good leader makes deals, minimizes internecine battles, and keeps people on board. George Bush tried to do this, but in his second term, he managed to make the compromises that angered conservatives while still losing pieces of his coalition. Until a strong leader or leadership emerges in the GOP that understands the need to build alliances with the middle without compromising core principles, the party won't make any progress.

I share the frustration other conservatives feel with the party's moderate wing. I'm as conservative in my politics as any purist could ask for, and I'd love 60 Republican senators who shared my views. But the problem is, we aren't going to get that in the near future, and an ideologically pure rump of 30% of the voters is still a rump. Does anyone really think, for example, that the country would have been better off if Rudy Giuliani hadn't won in New York? Will New Jersey be better off if we force a movement conservative to lose what may be a very winnable governorship in 2010?

I don't think anything could have been done to save Specter specifically. If Toomey or some other conservative had not run, Pennsylvania Republicans were so fed up they would have stayed home on election day anyway, and Specter was never going to go gracefully into the night. But the way we handle his exit may determine what happens to people like Snowe, Ridge, and the rest of the moderate crew. And sadly, we need them in order to remain meaningful as a party.

One last note. This thing might have a couple of silver linings. The Democratic party has been moving leftward over the past 8 years because they were able to be a crazy opposition with little responsibility to make things happen. Even after the election, they could afford to ignore the Blue Dogs and claim that their legislation was failing because of Republican opposition. Now, with 60 votes in the Senate, they will have to keep the Blue Dogs happy in order to govern. If the net effect is to shift the caucus back a little closer to the center and away from the brink, it may be worth it after all.

Silver lining number two is that I see little reason for aspiring Democrats to lie down for a former Republican who, to be completely crass about it, may not live through his next term, and has a tenuous grip on his seat at the best of times. If there is a bruising primary fight on their side, we may still regain the seat in 2010 with a more reliable Senator.