The Magazine

Specter of Change

Lessons from a defection.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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No one knows why the chicken crossed the road, but why Arlen Specter crossed the aisle to the Democrats is a matter of rather less mystery, if intense debate. The why is quite simple: Free-range Republican, he was about to lose next year's Pennsylvania primary by a large margin, a problem he solved by changing his voter pool. But it was the how that is rather more pertinent: He was under attack from conservatives in his own party, opening questions less of whether the good and the best can be enemies than of whether removing the mediocre turns out to be worth it when the result is the worst of all worlds.

Specter was targeted in the primary by a conservative with the backing of the free-market, low-tax Club for Growth, pegged by National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru as "The Club for Shrinkage," for its record of going after imperfect incumbents with down-the-line pure conservative activists, who go on to lose in the fall to a Democrat. In the Washington Examiner, Timothy Carney suggested that Specter's defection was prompted by the intention of Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina to back Specter's challenger, which DeMint had confided to Specter about five days before Specter switched. DeMint expressed no regrets: "I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs," he said. The fact that 30 senators cannot make policy didn't deter him at all.

DeMint is far from alone. After the 2008 election was over, an election which saw Republican numbers grow ever more minuscule, activists on all sides began vigorous efforts to make the party still smaller by purging from it everyone who failed to act, think, and talk as they did themselves. On op-ed pages, in magazines, on websites and cable and radio, a wide range of Republicans and right-wingers announced themselves shocked, appalled, mortified, and repelled to the point of nausea to find themselves in the same party with the likes of David Brooks, David Frum, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Meghan McCain, Karl Rove, and a collection of other politicos, pundits, and personalities whose presence they seemed to find intolerable. A passion for coalition-destruction seemed to rage on all sides.

What lies behind this is (a) the feeling that oneself and one's friends make up a majority; and (b) a failure to realize that a party and movement are not the same thing. A movement exists to express and promote a coherent set of principles in the world of ideas and of values. A party--especially in a two-party system--is something quite different: a gathering of diverse political forces around a large and loosely held set of interests and values, that exists to give all of its factions access to power in the practical world of events. A movement gives a party a spine and a platform; the party assembles a coalition around them that is large enough to win and hold power, and turn some of the movement's ideas into law.

The conservative movement is a collection of theorists that self-selects for conformity. The Republican party is the vehicle for the center-right of the American polity, a group that includes the conservative movement, but is not quite of it, and includes many people who touch the conservative movement with different degrees of intensity, or only lightly, or on only a limited number of points.

Permutations are endless: Rudy Giuliani, right on defense, crime, and tax-cutting, but wrong (in the movement's view) on gays and abortion; George W. Bush, a hawk, tax-cutter, and social conservative, but a bleeding heart and big spender; John McCain, a strong defense and fiscal conservative, but a maverick on many things else. All are considered as grave disappointments by the purists of the conservative movement, who also give failing grades to every Republican president since Coolidge, with the exception of Reagan, and sometimes even to him. The movement seems in a permanent funk over the party's unworthy leaders and often looks down on the party itself as being a drag on the movement's aspirations and prospects. The only problem is that the movement, if it is to be anything more than a really interesting reading group, needs the party if it wants to succeed.

The numbers say everything: Over recent decades, about a third of the population has self-described as conservative; just under half as moderate; while liberals come in at a little over one-fifth. This shows the strength of the conservative movement, in that it outpolls the liberals and, when combined with the large number of right-leaning moderates, can frequently reach a majority. But it also reveals its critical weakness: It is unable to push its own numbers beyond this one-third. This failure is the source of constant frustration to the movement, because it has to bargain with people it thinks "unreliable," who may stand with it on one set of issues and wander away on the next.

This is true of McCain, of Lindsey Graham, even more of the ladies from Maine, and of no one more than their former colleague Arlen Specter, who is with them on card check but against them on the stimulus package; against them on the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, but with them as a stalwart on the equally contentious matter of Clarence Thomas. The problem for conservatives is that in the states that these senators come from, on-and-off backing is all they are likely to get. They can rail at the "unreliables" as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), but this is a misnomer, as the Republicans are not in fact the conservative party. They are the party of the center-right, including those who are about one-eighth of an inch to the right of the center. Olympia Snowe doesn't owe her seat to conservative activists, but to the people of Maine, who elected her and presumably like what she's doing. If conservatives can't make their case to the people of Maine, it's a problem for them, not for Snowe and her voters. The alternative to her is not some idealized conservative activist. It's someone who never votes with them at all.

American political parties have never been uniform, much less monolithic, and shifting alliances on different issues are hardly unknown. The Democratic party of the FDR era included the worst segregationists and the civil rights movement, crypto-communists and southern reactionaries, and it saw the country through the Great Depression and the worst war in history, while electing Roosevelt four different times. Parties succeed when they group a large diverse crowd around a few major -values. They fail when they spend more time pounding heretics than selling their principles.

What can conservatives do, if they want to extend their dominion? They might stop holding up Ronald Reagan as a shield and an icon and look instead at what Reagan did. He was a movement conservative and a movement leader, but he was also a politician, and a builder of party, who understood how a movement fit into a party, and how a party could move a movement ahead. Coalition destruction was not on his agenda. "He set out to run as the candidate of party unity, reaching out to Republican moderates, especially in the Northeast," as his biographer Steven F. Hayward has written. In 1978, when his aide Jeffrey Bell ran a Club for Growth-style primary challenge to liberal Republican Clifford Case of New Jersey, Reagan refused to intervene in Bell's favor, and when Bell won, he did not rub it in, but hailed it mainly as a win for the Kemp-Roth tax cut, which had been Bell's main issue. (Bell lost to Democrat Bill Bradley that fall.)

Reagan made it clear that his party had to grow beyond its old country club image, but when it came time to choose a vice president, he reached out to two country club moderates, Pennsylvania's Richard Schweiker in 1976 and George H.W. Bush four years later. Yet in his remarkable speech of February 1977, on the "New Republican Party," he said the party would also have to reach out to blue collar social conservatives, and recruit them "as leaders and as candidates."

Reagan would have seen Sarah Palin as an asset and not an embarrassment. He did not consider the party an embarrassment either, but the only mechanism through which the ideals of movement could ever be implemented. "The biggest single grouping of conservatives is to be found in that party. It makes more sense to build on that grouping than to break it up and start over," he said to those who suggested that option. "Conservatism is not a narrow ideology, nor is it the exclusive property of conservative activists," he said to an audience of exactly those activists.

Let me say this about our friends who are now Republicans but do not identify themselves as conservatives. I want the record to show that I do not view the new revitalized Republican party as one based on a principle of exclusion. After all, you do not get to be a majority party by searching for groups you won't associate or work with. If we truly believe in our principles, we should sit down and talk.

Someone ought to read this to all of those "true heirs" of Reagan, before they end up with those 30 seats in the Senate that Jim DeMint speaks of. Or before as many as 30 seats in the Senate start to look like a pretty good deal.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.