Specter's Exit an Opportunity for the GOP

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.