By A.B. Stoddard - 04/29/09 05:21 PM EDT
There is a sliver of a chance that President Obama so bungles his tenure as president that Republicans can take back some seats in the House and Senate in the coming years or even win back the White House in 2012. But it is a sliver indeed, built on the current Republican strategy of waiting for lightning to strike.
The stunning departure of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) from the Republican Party on Tuesday was not a new problem for the GOP, just a perfect symbol of the party’s freefall, which makes the possibility of more defections far more likely than Obama’s political standing imploding. Shrinking its membership in every region of the country except the South, the GOP also faces staggering demographic challenges in the years ahead with Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, young voters and suburban voters who largely vote Democratic. Unless the party commits to a wholesale reversal in direction to recapture the middle, there is no hope of breaking the hold the Democrats have on those groups. In the words of pollster Frank Luntz, who tracks the party’s erosion as well as the changing demography, “Anyone who tells you the Republican Party is on its way back is smoking grass.”
Instead of new faces emerging, or a new message evolving, there is no evidence of Republicans trying to stop their slide. Rather, they are doubling down, as opposed to restoring a big tent as they are to Obama’s agenda. Karl Rove’s plan for a permanent majority has given way to a GOP cleansing led by Rush Limbaugh and other dead-enders who are thrilled to be rid of Specter and are among the 21 percent of remaining Americans who identify themselves as Republicans.
After Specter bid his fellow Republicans goodbye in person, only two lonely centrists — Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine — criticized their party for failing to keep him. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was so bewildered he couldn’t think straight. First he said “this isn’t a national story. This is a Pennsylvania story.” Later he called the defection “a threat to the country.”
As he pulled up a chair in the Democratic Party, Specter sounded a bit threatening himself, insisting he won’t be an automatic 60th vote. When asked if things could get tense with his new colleagues, he blurted: “It all depends if my fellow Democrats are stupid and wrong.”
Specter wasn’t so gracious, but he deserves credit for being blunt: The poll numbers made him do it. He knew that he would lose the primary to former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Of course he blamed the GOP for moving to the right, but he also said the new Republican electorate wasn’t worthy of judging him. “I’m not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” Specter grumbled righteously at his announcement.
Unlike in 2004, when he was helped by everyone, including President Bush, Specter was abandoned by the Republican establishment this year — not one GOP congressman from Pennsylvania would endorse him. One could conclude, since Pennsylvania Republicans are well-aware that Obama won the state by 10 percentage points, that they are far more interested in purity than victory or governance.
As long as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) remain the faces of the party, and as long as Republicans in Congress refuse to offer policy prescriptions for healthcare or climate change or other policy priorities of a majority of Americans, we know that as the Pennsylvania Republican Party goes, so goes the rest of the GOP.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.