Is the GOP’s ‘big tent’ shrinking? Sen. Arlen Specter’s departure from the Republican Party gives the Democrats one more vote in the Senate and makes opposition from the GOP that much more difficult.

But Specter’s move also raises questions about whether the Republicans are purging their way to oblivion.

Just as Ronald Reagan famously said the Democratic Party "left him," Specter bemoaned a changing GOP. "Since my election in 1980," Specter said, "the Republican Party has moved far to the right. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

Specter also acknowledged that his vote on the stimulus bill in February "caused a schism" that jeopardized his chances of re-election in next year’s Republican primary.

Is the GOP too right for its own good? Are the Republicans shrinking their party’s "big tent" to accommodate conservative purists alone? And what does Specter’s defection to the Democrats say about America’s red-blue divide? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.


Arlen Specter’s return to the Democratic Party from the GOP is as much about a politician’s opportunism as it is the principles for which embattled Republicans stand. Specter can read the polls as well as anyone: It’s not that the GOP has become more conservative in recent years. Quite the contrary. It’s that Pennsylvania is becoming more liberal. So is the rest of the country, for that matter.

Specter, who left the Democratic Party in 1966 because the climate in Pennsylvania favored Republicans at the time, was never a conservative vote in the Senate, even though conservatives have long supported him. Fact is, this self-styled social liberal and fiscal conservative was going down for his vote in favor of Barack Obama’s $750 billion economic "stimulus" boondoggle, not because he is pro-abortion, or fickle about judges, or fond of citing Scottish law.

No, Specter’s betrayal on the stimulus was the last straw for rank-and-file Republicans fed up with their elected leaders borrowing and spending and expanding the reach of government in the name of "conservatism."

For Republicans, losing another vote in the Senate isn’t good news, even if Specter was an unreliable ally. Republicans cannot advance their agenda by losing voters and purging members. More importantly, the GOP clearly cannot win by rejecting the principles of fiscal responsibility and limited government, either. Specter may be better off as a Democrat, but America is not.


When Arlen Specter announced that he was switching parties, there was a fair amount of "good riddance" commentary from conservatives. You couldn’t entirely blame them: Specter was simply never a good soldier for the GOP, and that made for a poor fit in a party that currently seems intent on purging itself of ideological diversity.

Here’s the thing: If you want to run the government — and that is, after all, one of the chief aims of party politics — you need people like Arlen Specter and his supporters, who occupy the vast middle of the American electorate.

It’s inevitable that Democrats are now going to be annoyed by Specter’s compromises and failures to adhere closely to their party line, but they should always remember what he signifies: The expanding of their tent.

It’s true you don’t want the tent to expand so much that you stand for nothing but power — and, well, there’s some danger of that in bringing Specter into the fold. But there will always be politicians like Specter who hang out at the edges, who don’t fit neatly into either party. And there will always be voters like that, too: Independents, after all, make up about a third of the population.

In the end, the party that can attract those politicians — and voters — is going to be the one that gets to run things. There will be some compromises in ideological purity, yes, but that’s the cost of power. And you’re in politics, it’s probably better to running things imperfectly than to be like today’s Republicans, purifying themselves into obsolescence.

(Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis blog daily at and

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