Is Arlen Specter's departure good for the GOP?

Bill Kristol argues that the Pennsylvania senator's defection will help the party, but Sen. Olympia Snowe is worried.

Published April 29, 2009 3:45PM (EDT)

It really is hard to argue that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to become a Democrat will ultimately help the GOP. But there are more than a few people trying to do just that.

On the Washington Post's Web site, for instance, Bill Kristol writes:

I wonder if today’s Arlen Specter party switch, this time to the president’s party, won’t end up being bad for President Obama and the Democrats. With the likely seating of Al Franken from Minnesota, Democrats will have 60 seats in the Senate, giving Obama unambiguous governing majorities in both bodies. He’ll be responsible for everything. GOP obstructionism will go away as an issue, and Democratic defections will become the constant worry and story line. This will make it easier for GOP candidates in 2010 to ask to be elected to help restore some checks and balance in Washington... So, losing Specter may help produce greater GOP gains in November 2010, and a brighter Republican future.

He may have a point there. But that's not a very forward-thinking way to look at it. The question will be what happens beyond 2010 if moderates like Specter continue to feel unwelcome in the Republican Party. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, discusses her worries about that prospect.

"It is true that being a Republican moderate sometimes feels like being a cast member of 'Survivor' -- you are presented with multiple challenges, and you often get the distinct feeling that you’re no longer welcome in the tribe. But it is truly a dangerous signal that a Republican senator of nearly three decades no longer felt able to remain in the party," Snowe says. "There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party. Ideological purity is not the ticket back to the promised land of governing majorities -- indeed, it was when we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of some of our basic tenets as a party that we encountered an electoral backlash."

Also in the Post, Ed Rogers, who worked for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has a pointed rejoinder to the arguments being made by Kristol and others: "Notice to Republicans: Arlen Specter changing parties is good for the Democrats and President Obama and bad for us. If you think otherwise, put down the Ann Coulter book and go get some fresh air."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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Arlen Specter D-pa. Olympia J. Snowe