Sen. Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats was in some respects a special case — naked political opportunism, or so his former GOP colleagues sniffed — but in other respects it is an early warning that the Republican Party nationally is in danger of being marginalized.
It is becoming smaller, more conservative and more and more of a Southern regional party. This is not a good place to be in a nation with an electorate that is generally moderate and where elections are fought and won in the political middle.
The Republicans, whether by luck or design, are ceding large areas of the country to the Democrats. The Northeast was once Republican territory. Even 10 years ago, the 11 states of the northern I-95 corridor provided the GOP with nine senators. With Specter gone, that number is down to three and one of those is retiring.
In the Senate, Republicans will lose what little institutional leverage they now have — the filibuster — assuming Al Franken of Minnesota becomes the 60th Democrat, giving Senate leader Harry Reid a filibuster-proof majority.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a comfortable 256-to-178-seat majority, increased by one this week with the swearing in of the Democratic victor in a special election in a traditionally Republican New York congressional district.
Perhaps baffled by President Obama’s popularity, congressional Republicans seem unable to craft viable alternatives to his initiatives. That has allowed Democrats to successfully paint them as obstructionists, "the party of no."
As the party grows smaller, the number of litmus tests its candidates must pass grows. Here the Specter defection is instructive. The Pennsylvania lawmaker, despite his years of service to his home state, wouldn’t have won the Republican primary. His opponent, an anti-tax conservative, will likely be unable to win the general election.
American political parties, to the bafflement of our European friends, have always been broad enough to accommodate conflicting viewpoints and flexible enough to co-opt the best ideas of third parties.
Some people don’t think this is such a bad thing. Rush Limbaugh, whose growing role as spokesman for the Republicans speaks to the party’s lack of forceful national leaders, said of Specter’s defection, "He’s not a moderate. He is a liberal Republican, and this is a natural winnowing process that is taking place … Within the Republican Party, people who are really not Republicans are leaving." So a liberal Republican, then, is not really a Republican?
That "winnowing" can only go so far. Said moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, "Ultimately, we’re heading to having the smallest political tent in history."
Our politics are predicated on a vigorous two-party system. Obama’s popularity, like that of all presidents, will ultimately fade and the Democrats may lapse into their traditional infighting. The question is: Will the Republicans be around when that happens?