02 May 2009

Gentlemen, Mark Your Opponents...

The obvious point to make about Senator Arlen Specter's switch from the Republicans to the Democrats is that this is almost entirely a self-inflicted wound on the part of the GOP. Organizations like the Club for Growth, whose president, Pat Toomey, would almost certainly have defeated Specter in a Republican primary next year (and would likely have been squashed in a general election in increasingly liberal Pennsylvania) have explicitly made it their business to punish GOP moderates who stray from low-taxes, small-government Republican orthodoxy, a stance that has, among other things, made the party almost completely noncompetitive in the Northeast. I hope they're happy.

The Republicans are in a classic political death spiral: as the party gets smaller, it grows more extreme, thus making it less attractive to moderates, and the cycle continues. More startling than Specter's decision was the reaction of GOP hardliners like Michael Steele and Jim DeMint (to say nothing of Michelle Malkin and Rush Limbaugh), who basically told Specter, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out," even though his defection gives the Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate (that is, once Minnesota's recently defeated Norm Coleman runs out of money/runs out of legal options/develops a sense of shame. I'm guessing he runs out of legal options first). Indeed, if the Republican Party gets any more principled, there may not be anyone left in it outside of Dick Cheney's hunting circle.

Still, as entertaining as this has been, it is not a good thing, even for those of us who support President Obama's agenda. Not only is there the danger of overreaching, à la F.D.R. in 1937, that Frank Rich discusses in his New York Times column today, but at a more fundamental level, we need a strong Republican Party capable of representing conservative political principles at their best, rather than at their degraded worst, or at least one that knows how to pick its battles a little more effectively. Think of the fight over the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which seems to have been the last straw in driving Specter from the party. GOP governors like Bobby Jindal and Mark Sanford had a kernel of a legitimate argument about the issue of unfunded mandates in general. But choosing unemployment insurance—in the middle of a deep recession, no less—as the issue to pick this fight over is strange, to say the least.

Personally, I'm of the view that we shouldn't be worrying too much about budget deficits while GDP is shrinking at five-percent-plus; a public-spending freeze seems like just about the worst possible move under the current macroeconomic conditions. But it would be nice if someone could make the opposite argument without lapsing into no-one-should-ever-have-to-pay-taxes fiscal fantasyland. The Republicans have utterly lost their credibility on economic issues with most Americans, yet many of the party's leaders seem to genuinely believe that its biggest problem is that it's not conservative enough. They seemed to have learned little or nothing from the electoral debacles of 2006 and 2008. It may well require a Goldwater/McGovern-style wipeout in a presidential election before they begin to see the light. It may require more than one.

I've got plenty of thoughts on the retirement of David Souter from the SCOTUS and related issues, but I'll hold off until Obama nominates his replacement, which may be a few weeks yet.

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