Sen. Arlen Specter's announcement yesterday that he will cross the aisle to join the Democrats was the latest expression of independence that has been his hallmark as a legislator.
For the Democratic Party, starting with President Barack Obama, it was a show of confidence on Mr. Specter's part. For the senator, it was his decisive support for the president's economic stimulus package that was probably the watershed. That measure was passed only because Mr. Specter and fellow Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, endured their party's wrath and a threatened loss of GOP campaign funds. Mr. Specter, however, clearly saw the action as necessary if the economy was to get the sharp push it needed toward recovery. It was the right position for the country and definitely right for Pennsylvania.
The Republican response to his vote was probably the other half of the genesis of Mr. Specter's decision to leave. For many in the GOP, not only had Mr. Specter committed a sin, but he also had given them a chance to eliminate him in the 2010 primary. The very party whose latest presidential nominee tried to market himself as a maverick is now at a fork in the road -- does it seek a return to the majority or a bid for ideological purity?
For Mr. Specter, it was the end of being able to operate with integrity, taking unique and principled positions, from what used to be the center of a Republican Party that had a much bigger tent. That party once was a home for the moderate views of Pennsylvanians like Hugh Scott, William Scranton Sr. and Richard Schweiker. And who knows what political soul-searching would have beset Republican Sen. John Heinz these days, had he not met a tragic end in 1991?
Mr. Specter's change of party will be a big boost for the Democrats in terms of Senate voting power. They (along with Independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman) will now have 59 of the 60 votes needed to shut off filibusters.
For Republicans, there might be reason to hope this cold bucket of water splashed in their face -- after all, Mr. Specter could have merely turned independent, but instead he went all the way to Democrat -- will cause them to think like a real party. And that means realizing that the most votes lie in the center, not on the far right or far left.
For Pennsylvanians, Arlen Specter is a statesman who has served the commonwealth and the country for many years -- first as an independent Republican and now as an independent Democrat. As to the needs of the country and the president's ability to lead it, the new Democratic lineup that includes Mr. Specter is good for the future as well.
We are proud of you, senator. Good decision, good timing.