The GOP After Specter

By Kimberley Strassel, Wall Street Journal - May 1, 2009

Arlen Specter's decision to go Democrat has sent the GOP into a new round of infighting over what the party is, and where it goes now. Mr. Specter is a very unhealthy basis on which to be having what might otherwise be a healthy debate.

Not that anything could stop the bitter winds now blowing through the Republican fields. Within hours of Mr. Specter's bombshell, the sides were formed up. Team Good Riddance featured the Club for Growth's Andy Roth: "Arlen Specter is the epitome of everything voters have come to hate about the Republican Party." "Arlen Specter makes case for term limits," Tweeted Mike Huckabee. "Don't let the door hit you on the way out," sang pundit Michelle Malkin.

Team Now-Look-What-You've-Done featured writer David Frum: "For years, many in the conservative world have wished for an ideologically purer GOP. Their wish has been granted. Happy?" Sen. Lindsey Graham unleashed on the Club for Growth, sagely adding: "As Republicans, we've got a problem." Maine's Olympia Snowe lamented: "You haven't certainly heard warm, encouraging words about how [the GOP] views moderates."

Purely from a tactical standpoint, Mr. Specter's move matters deeply. The Democrats are a gnat's breath away from a filibuster-proof majority. He has vowed to continue to vote his conscience on issues such as card check. Yet in the face of tough opponent in next year's Democratic primary, Mr. Specter's conscience might wander.

Purely from a philosophical standpoint, Mr. Specter's move means nothing, because he didn't leave his party on philosophical grounds. As even the good senator acknowledged in his press conference, his top priority is, and always has been, staying in office. Had the GOP last year allowed Mr. Specter to pen the entire party platform to his liking, he'd still have bailed this week. The Pennsylvanian has only ever been purely ideological on one issue: the polls.

It is this, by the way, that helps explain why Mr. Specter -- and certain other self-acclaimed Senate "moderates" -- raise such particular ire within their party. Maine's Susan Collins lectured the GOP this week that it needed to be open to "centrists." It does. Though it might help if Sen. Collins ever explained what she thinks that means.

When Joe Lieberman broke with his party on Iraq, or John McCain with his on global warming, or when Daniel Patrick Moynihan stood for Social Security reform, they were able to clearly articulate what it was about their political beliefs that led them to those positions. They also took their positions at some political risk. When Ms. Collins positions herself as a deficit hawk, even as she votes for every spending bill in sight -- often with a pure eye for re-election -- and then scolds her colleagues for not being more accepting of her "centrism," well, the party tends to get a bit cranky.

The point here being that Mr. Specter isn't necessarily a good indicator of how open, or not, the GOP is to "ideological" diversity. As it happens, the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate that Mr. Specter is now so unwilling to be "judged" by didn't suddenly turn against him because he was pro-choice (he always has been) or pro trial-lawyer (ditto). He got in trouble after he voted for the blowout $787 billion stimulus bill. (More on that later.)

That's not to say the GOP doesn't need to work this through, and soon. But to do it productively, as one wise Republican put it to me, the GOP needs to be "clear about the difference between philosophy and message." The party is currently in trouble because the party lost its principles. Overspending, earmarks, corruption and policy drift undermined Republican claims to be the party of reform.

With a popular president now branding the GOP as the "party of no," there will be a strong Republican temptation to cut deals on health-care or energy, hoping to get credit for bipartisanship, or for making policies less bad. But the GOP will never win running as a less enthusiastic version of big-government Democrats. Washington votes are the only way for congressional Republicans to actually demonstrate a philosophy to voters, and it is here the party must reclaim its mantle of the party of limited government and entrepreneurship.

This is different from a message of outreach, which the party also desperately needs, but is accomplished primarily in the field. It involves members explaining to younger constituents why old-fashioned principles of choice and freedom still work for modern problems like health care. It means transmitting a welcome to those attracted to even one part of the conservative philosophy -- free markets, strong national security, social values -- even if not all. It requires recruiting candidates who aren't held to stiff litmus tests, but who have a shot of winning in the Northeast, say, or Illinois.

Trying to mold this thinking around Arlen Specter will only prove an exercise in confusion. It already is.

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