[Posted by Karl]
Certainly, Sen. Arlen Spector’s defection to the Democrats made a nice frame for the portrait of Republicans in disarray at the 100-day mark of the Obama Administration. It was also another opportunity for factions on the Right to argue among themselves.
Ed Morrissey is correct on one level to argue that the Specter case is not a good one for people like David Frum (or Rick Moran, for that matter) to argue that the GOP’s problem is that it it too conservative. After all, Specter has long been a member of his own Party of One. But Specter’s basic problem may shed some light on a larger political dynamic, though not exactly the one on which Frum fixates.
Specter’s admitted problem was that he probably had no chance of winning the GOP primary in Pennsylvania. While Frum, Ramesh Ponnuru and Sen. Lindsey Graham were quick to blame the Club for Growth for this, W. James Antle, III provides a better explanation that is relevant beyond the borders of the Keystone State:
[Specter’s] base had already defected to the Democratic Party before him: “Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats.”
These Republicans were not kicked out of the party by the Club for Growth. They tell pollsters they left because they did not like Bush-era Republican leadership. They claim to disagree with Republican policies pretty much across the board, but it was the last eight years that finally moved them to bolt. There is nothing like a sustained popular perception of a failed presidency to send nonideological supporters of a party streaming toward the exits.
You can plausibly blame the Club for Growth for three Democratic House seats: Maryland’s First Congressional District, Michigan’s Seventh District, and Idaho’s First District, two of which the Club-backed Republicans were able to win in the tough 2006 cycle. The Democrats have picked up over 50 House seats in the last two elections. Iraq, Katrina, and the economic crisis have cost Republicans far more seats than the Club.
Although all of those issues may have more nuance to them than the Left would acknowledge, the public perception among the casual, nonideological bloc of the electorate was that of failure. Moreover, unemployment rose steadily from 2006-08, while the economy was headed toward recession even before the Wall Street meltdown last September.
The Left views this environment as evidence of an ideological failure, which should surprise no one. After all, the Left believes in the power of government planning in matters domestic and foreign. They are far less likely to own up to the myriad ways in which the complexity of the world and human nature tend to intrude on their Utopian dreams.
The Left also puts great stock in how unpopular the GOP is at the moment, putting forth streams of propaganda about the shrinking GOP. The Specter case demonstrates how the dynamic works. The Republican base is smaller and more ideologically pure, thus making people like Specter unelectable in a party primary, but putting forth nominees who are less electable in reliably blue states like Pennsylvania.
The reality is more complicated. Party identification is not a great predictor of electoral outcome. What occurs is that the nonideological bloc bases their perceptions on performance, character issues, etc. In 2008, that perception was one of failure and incompetence. That environment also accounts for a fair amount of the shifts in Party ID. Those who weakly identified as Republican decide they do not want to carry that baggage socially and become Independents. Conversely, Independents who lean Democrat feel more confident and switch leftward. That is why party ID shifts, even though ideological self-identification barely budges over time.
This dynamic can also be seen in the current Gallup Poll of Pres. Obama’s job performance — as opposed to his job approval. As the Washington Times notes, Obama’s 56% job performance number is the second lowest in the last 40 years, beating only Bill Clinton. The number for Independents is even lower, at 48%. That is consistent with a number of polls showing a rapidly rising disapproval for Obama among Independents. It is a fair bet that many of these Independents are former Republicans, or Republican leaners for whom the reality of the Obama Administration is now sinking in.
Suddenly, the idea of having Republicans act as a a check and balance to Obama and the Democratic Congress sounds pretty appealing. That notion would tend to explain why the GOP has gained the generic Congressional ballot; the GOP has done much to earn those gains. Specter himself made the check and balance argument as recently as last month. He had to abandon it because the numbers in Pennsylvania seemed to have moved too far against him in a state that has not voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1988, but there are plenty of places that are not that far gone. Specter’s defection will likely give the electorate a good look at unchecked Democrats, who suddenly will not have Republican obstructionism to blame for their failures. That will likely be a painful lesson, but only marginally more painful than it was going to be with Specter in the GOP caucus — so perhaps it is a lesson better learned sooner than later.