Specter's Epilogue

The dramatic party-switch by Pennsylvania bulldog Sen. Arlen Specter can be read as a final denouement in the slow, steady collapse of the Republican Party. Though the decline was triggered by the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, it was the decision by congressional Republicans to so fully and uncritically embrace the Bush agenda and the president's arrogance that cost the GOP so dearly.

In retrospect, it is interesting to note how early the signs of the implosion began to appear: The seeds of the GOP's current demise were sown in the triumphal moments following Bush's victory in 2000. Had they heeded the warning signs, Republicans could have saved themselves a lot of trouble -- and maybe even a few congressional seats. Specter's reasons for leaving are the same as Republican-turned-Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords' were eight years ago. Perhaps more importantly, they were the same reasons that drove so many Americans into the arms of the Democrats over the last four years of the Bush administration.

On May 23, 2001, while Bush still basked in the glow of his new presidency, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott held a reception honoring Gerald Ford. The bitterness of the election had begun to dissipate, but not in the Senate, where the divisions were playing out in a 50-50 chamber split. Lott was the majority leader by virtue of the fact that Vice President Dick Cheney, as president of the Senate, had the tie-breaking vote.

At Lott's reception, the drinks were served in crystal. The embossed coasters that sat under each glass read: "Majority Leader"; I remember thinking, "Yes, but for how long?"

There were already rumors that Jeffords, upset by the size of the Bush tax cuts and by huge cuts in environmental and education spending, would leave the GOP. He would become an independent and caucus with the Democrats, giving them the majority. The very next day, he did exactly that.

"I became a Republican not because I was born into the party, but because of the kind of fundamental principles that these and many Republicans stood for: moderation; tolerance; fiscal responsibility. Their party -- our party -- was the party of Lincoln," Jeffords said by way of explanation.

And Jeffords made clear that he was leaving because of Bush: "In the past, without the presidency, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the party's agenda. The election of President Bush changed that dramatically."

There was no room to argue with or influence the White House; the pressure to toe the line was already too much for Jeffords. He predicted that the political situation was only going to get worse. "I can see more and more instances where I'll disagree with the president on very fundamental issues -- the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues, large and small."

In so many ways, Jeffords was talking for those swing voters who had been the decisive bloc in the recent national elections. But for the ideological purists who controlled the Republican Party, it was a time of opportunity. For six years they were in charge but frustrated. Though Republicans had controlled Congress since 1994, many of their best efforts were quashed by Bill Clinton's veto pen.

It may have been that frustration more than anything else that led them to be so unquestioningly loyal to a president who had not even won the popular vote.

With the Bush win, they seized their moment, and quickly fell in line. Lott told me back then that he would wake up pinching himself with joy that Bush was in the White House. After the Supreme Court made Bush the winner, Tom DeLay, the house majority leader at the time, similarly stated, "The things we have been dreaming about, we can now do."

Suddenly all of that pent up ideological frustration meant there was no place for a moderate like Jeffords. Dissent became inconvenient at the very least -- and traitorous at worst.

But Bush's stridency on issues like Iraq, tax cuts, climate change, stem cell research, and Social Security -- along with congressional Republicans' willingness to support him -- quickly became a political turnoff for a lot of Americans. They saw a world in tatters and a government taking an ideological stand in response. The Terri Schiavo fiasco, Hurricane Katrina and the worsening economy did not help their cause; there was a sense that ideologues were driving the bus and they were going to take it over the cliff.

Despite their declining popularity, Democrats could not quite get their act together. Republicans kept control of the House in 2002 and, in 2004, retook the Senate and held onto the White House. Smugness metastasized into full-blown arrogance. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital," Bush said the morning after his reelection in 2004, "and now I intend to spend it."

Bush's first goal after his reelection was to try to partially privatize Social Security, which infuriated people who were already seeing the sign of a worsening economy and who were now much more skeptical of the administration because the war in Iraq was not going well. Then came Katrina, which turned the widespread unease with the president's swagger into disdain for his incompetence. Republicans had lost both houses of Congress in the 2006 elections, and the president could only lament his misspent capital the morning after: "Look, this is a close election. If you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping."

Two of those elections carried special significance for Arlen Specter. The first election called that night was in Pennsylvania, where the incumbent Republican, Rick Santorum, lost his Senate seat by 18 points. Clearly, there was no ambivalence about that rejection. More telling was the Republican loss in Rhode Island. Lincoln Chaffee was Arlen Specter without the lawyerly pomposities: He was a moderate who opposed Bush and his party on many important issues His approval rating in his state was in the mid-sixties, but he lost 53 percent to 47 percent to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, because voters decided that they wanted to punish Bush and the Republicans.

Specter could not miss the meaning: Republicans are dying and moderate Republicans are headed for extinction. There was no other option but to switch.