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Arlen Specter’s announcement this week of his plans to switch to the Democrat side of the aisle is sending shockwaves throughout the country.
No one is surprised as to the motives behind the defection, as Pennsylvania conservatives’ ire over Senator Specter and his big government leanings are very well-known. These tensions were headed to a breaking point in advance of Specter’s 2010 re-election bid and the switch was necessary to keep his hopes of political survival alive. It is in how the GOP responds to this bombshell however that will dictate its impact on the future of the conservative limited government movement.
Staring down the barrel of the immediate policy consequences of the Specter switch will give freedom-loving conservatives a good deal of heartburn. Specter will work to endear himself to his new party and their march toward the Obama agenda of big government. Socialized medicine, a massive carbon cap-and-trade tax hike, union-empowering card check legislation: all these liberal policy wish-list items now have new life. A sixty-vote margin in the Senate is now guaranteed to beat back the threat of a conservative filibuster against any of these proposals and many on the Right, to include myself, are worried about this newly strengthened Democratic steamroller paving America’s way towards socialism.
Surely many in the conservative soft-middle are already preparing their arguments for why it’s important for the GOP to come closer to the center (i.e. the Left). Some Republicans in Congress will reason that they must acquiesce to the Democrats on much of the policy agenda to have any hope of slipping in modest wins for conservative constituencies. Those more obsessed with power will seek this same approach in order to benefit their status on key committees and ensure the survival of pet projects for their districts and states. Certainly we will be able to depend on a core of rock-solid conservative champions like Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn in the Senate and Republican Study Committee Members in the House, but their ability to keep the GOP rooted in good, limited government principles will be significantly weakened by the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” crowd.
Anticipating this latest crisis of conscience that Congressional Republicans will go through let me suggest that, in this political game of “chicken,” we shouldn’t turn first.
The strategy of cozying up to the liberal machine and hoping for the occasional table scrap was that of the content Republican minority during the early nineties in the days before the Contract with America. Fortunately, bold leaders like Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich chose not to buckle. They held Republicans together, took the fight directly to Democrats, and by standing on limited government, free market policy they were rewarded by the American electorate politically with control of Congress in 1994.
Consider too the fact that in today’s political environment, and despite the President’s perceived “rock star” status, Democrats have greatly resisted wholly owning the Obama agenda thus far. The fight over the trillion dollar stimulus plan in January was an early indicator. Pelosi, Reid, and Obama all spent a lot of time tinkering with language in the legislation in an effort to court some Congressional Republicans from the squishy center and claim the mantle of bipartisanship. Those efforts failed as almost every Republican (only three defections, all in the Senate, including the new Democrat Specter) stood together in voting against the bloated stimulus bill.
Now the larger health care debate has begun and Democrats have neatly worked a safety-valve into the budget resolution passed this week that will allow them to enact a government-run health care scheme through the reconciliation process, requiring only 51 votes. Nevertheless, that Democrat leaders are bending over backwards to show they would rather do it in a bipartisan way through the more rigorous regular-order process of achieving a 60-vote threshold is notable. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is leading a chorus of voices on the Left sounding the strong desire not to invoke reconciliation in order to pass health care legislation, even though they could, through numerous statements and a host of communications with the Republican conference.
Don’t let the touchy-feely nature of their bipartisan overtures fool you. Just like with the stimulus bill Democrats are afraid of being tagged with the political responsibility for their own party’s reform approach and want some Republican by-in for cover. What else could the reason be? If they whole-heartedly believed in the policy they were peddling they would proudly push it through on their own, even without the help of their caucus’ new member from Pennsylvania.
Those plotting the GOPs return to power should consider this in the wake of the Specter switch and take a lesson from Armey, Gingrich, and others that chose to go Right and actually won in spite of pressure to play ball.