May 1, 2009—Republicans can both boo and cheer Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democratic Party. It’s a heavy blow for them to lose their hopes of blocking legislation by filibuster in the Era of Obama. But many would have been glad to see Specter leave the Senate, preferring a more conservative Republican like the Club-for-Growth’s Pat Toomey, his primary challenger in 2004, to take the Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2010.

And all might still be made right for the Republicans if Toomey can beat Democratic Senator Specter in the general election. However, given the current Democratic mood in the Northeast, it’s questionable whether Toomey can win.

Indeed, Specter might well have switched parties out of fear that Toomey’s primary challenge would have forced him to sound too right-wing to win Pennsylvania as a whole. Now Specter can tack left in a Democratic primary and steer back to the right to win the election from the center. And Pennsylvania has been a reliable “blue” state in recent elections; now Specter is politically color-coordinated with the majority. 

With the departure of the moderate Specter, the Republican party in Congress takes on a more conservative shade and loses an important deal-broker. But will Specter’s choice to join the much more left-leaning Democrats allow him to moderate the policies of his new party, pulling it in a more liberty-friendly direction?
Here at The Atlas Society we’ve long pointed out that the Republicans have differed little from the Democrats in their cultural assumptions. It is cultural attitudes and ethics that drive politics. Isn’t it better to give than receive? (Especially with other people’s money!) And isn’t the road to power paved with handouts to interest groups who can deliver votes? (Especially, interest groups too murky to be identified, or too wholesome-sounding to be critiqued.) Specter’s pragmatic maneuver to hold on to power follows this logic. The ascendance of the Left in American politics today is making Republicans question what they stand for, and if that wakes at least some politicians up to the cultural contradictions of marrying self-sacrifice and freedom, that stands to the good.
The ascendance of the Left in American politics today is making Republicans question what they stand for.
Will Specter be at home among the Democrats? Specter is no doctrinaire libertarian, and joining the Democrats will give him political cover when he votes to nationalize health care and to penalize carbon emissions. And Specter has made a principle of not standing on principle, so his politics could drift in most any direction as political winds shift. Still, he is likely to stand on the right wing of the Democratic Party, as his recent stand against increasing the power of unions indicates. Specter was on the stage with our own Ed Hudgins on April 15, 2008 to speak out against heavy taxes . Now, surely, he must disavow his anti-tax views. But perhaps, instead, after years as a weight on the Republicans, he might now become a draw on the Democrats toward a more reasonable view of government.
After all, if there are small-government Republicans and big-government Republicans, why is it that these days all Democrats seem to stand for big government only—more bureaucracy, more regulation, and higher taxes? Why aren’t there any small-government Democrats? Part of the reason, historically, is that the Republicans co-opted the old, Southern conservative wing of the Democratic Party as they rose to majority status in the ’80s and ’90s. Conservative Democrats became Republicans in many cases, or were replaced by conservative Republicans.
But still, if “moderate” Republicans could marry a pro-business, traditionalist ideology with noblesse oblige, economic regulation, and growing entitlement programs, why can’t economically literate Democrats wed their own paternalism and egalitarianism to a recognition that bureaucracies are inefficient, taxes aren’t donations, and regulations restrict individual autonomy?
There’s a logic to the idea of small-government Democrats. They could still support the altruistic social goals that “progressives” cherish, such as fighting poverty and eliminating racism and sexism. Small-government Democrats could still be environmentalists and vote for carbon caps, as Specter probably will. But small government Democrats could still realize that the government is too big. It has too many programs. It interferes where it shouldn’t. The tax burden is too high.
Small-government Democrats would not oppose a large government presence where they felt it warranted, but they would realize that bureaucracies are inefficient and freedom is often the best solution. If Specter brings his past skepticism about union power and taxes to the Democratic Party, perhaps he can bring some sanity to a party that currently governs by whimsy and blind faith in government action. Here’s hoping, anyway.

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