Sen. Arlen Specter’s party-switching has sent reverberations through the political world and the Republican Party. And the blame game has begun already.
A political food fight of a sort has broken out between Club for Growth (the organization which Specter’s challenger Pat Toomey previously headed) on one hand, and Ramesh Ponnuru and Sen. Lindsay Graham on the other. The latter two blame Club for Growth for narrowing the Republican Party. Club for Growth responds that the GOP is better served by vibrant conservatives, arguing that Specter is precisely the type of opportunistic politician who has hobbled the GOP and turned off voters. Both have a point, but as with everything the devil is in the details.
Club for Growth is right that voters and pundits find it hard to rally around someone as lacking in political ideals as Specter. Nor can a group devoted to fiscal conservatism expect to back someone so obviously lacking in fiscal sobriety. And insofar as the Club gave strong words of encouragement to a candidate like Rudy Giuliani (who was an anathema to many a conservative pundit) in the 2008 presidential race, it hardly seems to be the source of the party’s travails when it comes to broadening the GOP’s appeal beyond core conservatives. If anything, fiscal conservatism is what allowed Republicans, for a time, to establish a firm foothold in New England.
Now certainly Graham and Ponnuru state a truism: a party which hopes to have national appeal must be a coalition and allow for a diversity of views. But there’s the rub, of course. There is no shortage of pundits or fellow politicians willing to drub this or that candidate out of contention because he is not within the “mainstream” of the party, which usually amounts to a near-perfect fidelity to the conservative rubric. It is well and good to promote diversity, but that requires those who promote it to also tolerate those who dissent. That means abortion, stem cell research, immigration, and a dozen other hot button items.
And that continues to be the challenge for Republicans: to find a message and candidates who sound broadly conservative themes but appeal to an audience beyond the base.
Frankly, that shouldn’t be hard these days. With market capitalism under assault and polling showing voters quite concerned about spending, debt, and bailouts, you’d think Republicans could find a message which resonates with a wide audience. Although perhaps rank amateurs, the tea party protestors have found the message around which conservatives can unify and which might also bring in independents. Personal responsibility, ending corporate welfare and bailouts, reasonable budgets, and the rule of law might form the basis of a winning message.
And with Democrats bent on closing Guantanamo and charging former Bush officials with war crimes, you’d think the Republicans would be able to articulate a common-sense national security message that appeals to conservatives, moderates, and independents. After all, the public opposes show trials and favors keeping Guantanamo open. So you’d think that would give Republicans something to rally around which would attract voters growing queasy about Obama’s national security policies.
But the devil is in the details. One man’s diversity is another’s heresy. And until Republicans and their loudest voices in the blogosphere drop the “check-the-box” litmus tests they will likely find themselves in the permanent minority.
The ancillary lesson to be gleaned from Specter and from the near-miss in the recent New York-20 congressional race: the GOP desperately needs young, attractive, and dynamic candidates. When the “brand” is smudged, the candidates must be better, not worse. When the “R” is a drag, then the emphasis must be on candidates who can outpace the generic polls. Even if Specter had stayed within the GOP, could an 79-year old bloviating figure like Specter have won under any circumstances? Highly doubtful.
This year will be a test of all of this. In the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, the Republicans have potential winning candidates in Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie who might rescue states for the GOP that have been trending Blue. Both are setting forth fiscal conservative messages, problem-solving agendas on everything from education to energy. And they have found plenty to talk about that won’t be off-putting either to critical independents or conservative Democrats.
It will be a test for the GOP and for conservative pundits whether they can accept the message and the persona of candidates who have a shot at winning key races. Will they rally around Christie in New Jersey or throw the primary to a hardcore opponent with little chance in the general election? Will the Virginia state party continue its display of dysfunctionality or get busy turning out the vote?
If Republicans can get their act together in these races, Specter will seem a distant memory. And in the meantime, Republicans might want to save the blame game for another time and enjoy the liberation from defending a candidate who perpetually disappointed just about everyone and long since ceased being a dependable vote. Now he’s the Democrats’ dilemma — unless voters decide they’ve had enough of political opportunism and lectures on Scottish law.