Arlen Specter and the Peril of Democratic Party Dominance

Arlen Specter's recent decision to switch parties was viewed by many Democrats as a great victory. It moved the Democratic Party closer to the magic number of 60 Democratic senators which would mean a filibuster proof majority. It also further demonstrated that the Republicans have not yet finished the downward spiral which really began with the 2006 midterm elections. If a center right Republican like Arlen Specter feels compelled to leave the party because he believes it has been taken over by the extremists, then the Republicans still have a ways to go before becoming relevant again.

Certainly Specter's abandonment of the Republicans is bad news for that party and, at least, in the short run helps the Democrats, but it also is a harbinger of challenges that may arise for the Democratic Party if this period of dominance continues. If the Democrats entrench themselves as the dominant partying American politics, there will be more politicians who, like Arlen Specter, will switch parties, not due to strong affinity with the vision and platform of the party, but out of political necessity or convenience. However, as we are already seeing with Specter, once these people join the party, the party leadership has very little leverage over them with regards to important issues where there support is needed. Specter's statements about the Minnesota senate race are a good example of this. The Democratic leadership does not need to have "Democratic" senators saying that Norm Coleman should retain his seat.

In periods of one party dominance, perhaps ironically, the dominant party can encounter troubles passing their legislative agenda, and governing more generally, precisely because the party is so large. Democrats like Specter, driven largely by their own need to survive politically, will provide votes to the party on some of the major issues, but will not be reliable supporters of the party leadership, nor will they be likely sources of progressive ideas to drive the Democratic agenda. Additionally, if the faction of moderate Republicans becomes more powerful within the Democratic Party, as very well may happen, they will begin to gain power and seniority, potentially taking power away from more progressive leadership of the party. Thus, if Democratic Party dominance, based largely on the inability of the Republican Party to grow beyond its limited base, continues, the Democratic Party will be pulled in too many directions to function effectively.

As more politicians like Specter switch parties, a likely development, voters in places like Pennsylvania will soon follow because the Democrats will increasingly become the only relevant political party in their state or area, making Democratic primaries the most important elections as already is the case in many big cities. Implicit in Specter's message that he did not want to be judged by the far right voters who make up Republican Primary electorates, was that moderate and center-right voters in Pennsylvania should leave the Republican Party as well because their voices can no longer be heard in that party. While this may be a good indicator of Democratic victories to come in Pennsylvania, it also can lead to a Democratic Party that represents such a breadth of views and ideas that it loses any real cohesion.

While one cannot really blame Specter, and others who will, perhaps more quietly, follow for making individual decisions to save their political careers, the political system, and to a real extent the Democratic Party as well, would be better served if these Republicans committed themselves to the more difficult task of taking the Republican Party back from the Limbaugh-Fox News-Palin faction and building a competitive 21st century party.

The notion that our country needs at least two competitive parties is not just a platitude, nor is it necessary solely to hold the dominant party accountable. The presence of a reasonable alternative allows the majority party to have an identity and to stand for something. Without this alternative, the dominant party soon becomes too big and inevitably falters as it cannot be everything to everybody. We see this in many big cities which are dominated by the Democratic Party, but where the Democratic Party seems unable to govern well or to enact a meaningful progressive agenda.

If the Democratic Party continues to draw people, as it has over the last several years, particularly during the Obama campaign, because of a shared vision of progressive change or even because of a shared outrage and the disastrous policies of the Bush administration, the Party can continue to play a useful and progressive role. Once it reaches a tipping point and draws people because it is the only political game in town, the Democratic Party will begin to stand for nothing. If this happens it is only a matter of time before the wheel turns again and the Democrats find themselves where they were in 1994.