I've seen a lot of unexpected things in a lifetime of following American politics.
But I can't think of anything that astonishes me as much as today's announcement that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is switching parties and will run as a Democrat when he seeks re–election (at the age of 80) next year.
I guess it shouldn't surprise me, though. Specter was a Democrat when he was young, then switched parties when he sought office in Philadelphia in the 1960s. He tells the story in the attached clip.
Specter was elected to the Senate in the Republican year of 1980. The Republicans took control of the Senate that year, but Specter's election didn't really contribute to it because he didn't replace a Democrat. He was elected to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Republican Richard Schweiker, who had a centrist voting record.
In fact, four years earlier, Schweiker was named as Ronald Reagan's running mate in a political maneuver that was intended to help Reagan win the hotly contested Republican nomination in 1976 — but failed to do so. Then, in 1981, after Schweiker left the Senate and Reagan became president, Reagan chose Schweiker to be his secretary of Health and Human Services, a post he held for two years.
Specter, meanwhile, has been re–elected four times — in 1986, 1992, 1998 and 2004 — sometimes by wide margins, sometimes in close contests. He is considered a moderate, conservative on issues like crime and national security, with a more liberal record on abortion, the environment and immigration. He favors affirmative action and voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1990. He opposes same–sex marriage but supports civil unions. He supports the death penalty and opposes most forms of gun control.
Specter's greatest value to the Democrats in 2009 is the fact that, with Al Franken apparently on the brink of becoming the senator from Minnesota, he gives the Democrats the 60–seat, "filibuster–proof" majority needed to accomplish whatever they wish.
No president has had that luxury since Jimmy Carter in 1977 and 1978.
"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right," Specter said in a statement today. "Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."
Specter was expected to face a rough campaign for re–election as a Republican next year. Many conservatives had sworn to oppose him, in large part because of his support for the economic stimulus package. And there was much rejoicing in Republican ranks a couple of weeks ago when it became known that former Rep. Pat Toomey would challenge him for the GOP nomination next year. Toomey nearly beat Specter in the Republican primary in 2004, even though Specter was endorsed by George W. Bush, and now, presumably, becomes the odds–on favorite to win the GOP nod and face Specter in the 2010 general election.
Even though there is plenty of agenda promotion going on in both parties right now, I have to wonder if Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele wasn't on to something when he said, "Sen. Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left–wing voting record."
Does Specter's switch indicate a genuine change of heart? Or is it a pragmatic ploy to prolong his political career?
Time will tell.