D.C. is all a-twitter with today's news that Sen. Arlen Specter has decided to switch parties to avoid a tough Republican primary opponent. In theory this gives the Democrats the 60 votes needed to avoid the omnipresent Republican filibuster (assuming Al Franken ever gets seated). In reality, power still lies in the hands of the same handful of centrist Senators, no matter what letter appears next to their name.
On one level, it's a little bit sad to see the Republicans seemingly driving out their moderate members. Nate Silver has dubbed this the Republican Death Spiral, where moderates lose or leave the party and the increasingly conservative remainder is unable or unwilling to appeal to the mainstream, leading to more losses and more defections, etc. The psychology is pretty easy to understand.
One question is why this didn't happen to the Democrats in '02 and '04 when they were getting trounced at the polls? I think partly it did. There were numerous voices that called for moderating the party's message, but the leadership picked liberal Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader over the moderate Steny Hoyer. The party then nominated two solid liberals -- Kerry and Obama -- as their presidential standard-bearers, rather than reaching for a centrist.
But at the same time as the Dems stuck to their liberal guns, Howard Dean rolled out his 50 state strategy and Obama made a concerted effort to compete in red states like Virginia and North Carolina. A shift to the left, yes, but also reaching out beyond the base. (And of course, the Democrats also got lucky. As 9/11 faded, the Bush administration dragged on and the economy collapsed, the country as a whole seems to have shifted left.)
The key then is not ideology, but outreach and persuasion. Maybe the Republican Party's mistake is not in becoming more conservative, but in writing off large portions of America as unworthy. If you live in a city, the party barely even tries to appeal to your interests. If you are gay or lesbian or have family members who are immigrants, some Republican politicians don't even want your vote and routinely go out of their way to insult you.
As I've ranted before, this is dumb politics on their part. The Democrats, whatever else their faults, seem to have an unshakable belief that the entire middle class is their turf and their natural constituency. Anyway, it will be interesting to see how Specter changes the calculus for health care reform, cap-and-trade, EFCA, etc.