Wednesday, April 29th, 2009
Twenty four hours after Sen. Arlen Specter’s defection from the Republicans to the Democrats, you can see the spin machines on both sides of the aisle grinding out what they hope will become the central narratives of this political game changer. Yesterday the leading Jewish Democrats and Republicans offered the Jewish Week what turned out to be perfect distillations of their respective parties’ Specter spins.
To the Democrats, this is all about a Republican Party that is playing to an ever-narrower base of religious conservatives; that’s why Specter was squeezed out of the party, they say.
““we welcome Arlen Specter to the ‘big tent’ Democratic party,” said Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). “It seems like the Republican Party just wants to circle the wagons tighter, and is more interested in ideological purity than in expanding its base.”
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said it’s not about big tents, but big spending.
“We are disappointed Sen. Specter has chosen to leave the party instead of staying in and trying to effective change,” Brooks said.
Citing the former Republican congressman whose expected primary challenge in 2010 was a key reason Specter made the switch, he said “The biggest factor that brought Pat Toomey into the race was economic. It wasn’t some social issue litmus test that forced Arlen Specter out of the party, but his vote on the stimulus package.”
There you have it: to the Democrats, it’s all about a GOP that’s playing more and more to its religious conservative base; to the Republicans it’s about Specter’s defection on critical government spending and economics issues.
Who’s right? It looks like both versions contain elements of truth.
Toomey gave Specter a big primary scare in 2004, and while the national press focused on now Specter’s positions on abortion and other social values issues drew big-name Christian right leaders into the fight on Toomey’s side, Toomey himself emphasized what he claimed was Specter’s support for tax-and-spend liberal policies.
But it was Specter’s opposition to anti-abortion judicial nominees that most incensed Christian conservative leaders over the years, and was a big reason for the persistent effort to find a primary opponent who could defeat him.
“Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right,” he said in announcing the partisan switch. “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.”
The GOP base does seem to be narrowing even as the nation becomes far more diverse, one reason political scientists like the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato see a bleak near-term future for the party.
There are now no Jewish Republicans in the Senate, and only one in the House. The party may boast that its new chairman is black – former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele – but at least at the national level, it remains the party of white Christian conservatives.
But arguing that Specter’s defection is just about that narrowing base misses the point that there is growing polarization over economic and fiscal matters, as well as values issues.