May 1, 2009 -- Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s sudden change from the Republican to the Democratic Party has left Republicans with mixed feelings: rage that he is probably handing the Democrats a filibuster-proof Senate at one of the most critical political junctures in modern times and relief that they’re rid of a RINO (Republican In Name Only) who has often been at odds with the majority of Republicans on crucial issues.
George W. Bush’s eight years in the White House, during six of which the Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, were actually not good times for the GOP. Bush defined himself as a “compassionate” conservative, by which he meant that he would support the sort of big-government programs that Reagan Republicans found anathema. These included the No Child Left Behind federal education program (a far cry from Reagan’s call to abolish the federal Department of Education), a prescription drug program that was a major expansion of Medicare, and other hikes in domestic spending surpassed only by Lyndon Johnson. Many Republicans supported these programs only grudgingly.
The GOP’s loss of control of Congress in 2006 caused many Republicans to break with the White House and demand a return to the limited government philosophy. The Bush administration did try to hold back on spending in its final two years and did resist the temptation to pile more new regulations onto the economy and backs of Americans than it might have. Still, Bush had the practices of a big-government politicians combined with the reputation of being a conservative who was playing to the political Right and who was just plain incompetent—witness Iraq and Katrina.
After the defeat of moderate John McCain by Barack Obama, most Republicans in Congress were determined to highlight both their distinctive brand and their unity by opposing the Democrats’ $700 billion “stimulus” package, which was little more than a Leftist ploy to seize greater federal control of healthcare, education, energy, and the environment. The Republicans again raised the limited government flag. Sen. Specter was one of only three Republicans who failed to salute it and who sided with Obama and the Democrats.
Republicans should become more consistent and principled in their defense of freedom.
Specter argued that he was an independent Republican who voted on an issue-by-issue basis, another way of saying he is a man with few guiding principles. Dissent from the majority Republican position as such is not necessarily a bad thing if freedom is your goal. Specter, for example, has opposed limits on a woman’s right to chose whether to get an abortion. One could justify these positions as consistent with the principles of limited government and rule of law. But many of Specter’s other positions were pure statist.
Specter claims that he is switching parties because the Republicans have moved too far to the Right. But he can’t mean that they had too many anti-individual liberty positions and were expanding government. In that case he would have become a Libertarian. Rather, he will probably support Obama’s energy tax and further government control of healthcare. Before his party switch he agreed, grudgingly, not to side with Democrats to eliminate the necessity for a secret ballot in union elections. Now, perhaps, he will find some way to wiggle out of that promise.
Still, Specter’s switch puts the limited-government Republicans in a difficult position. Assuming that Democrat Al Franken is awarded the senate seat in the contested Minnesota election, the Democrats will have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Some think the lesson of Specter’s defection is that the Republicans need to become more moderate. But “moderate” isn’t the issue. The Republicans should become more consistent and principled in their defense of freedom. They should continue to focus on the looming threat of true socialism in America and make real to the American people exactly how much their new chains would weigh. They should drop symbolic—and silly— battles over such issues as gay marriage and religion. The fact that a Specter no longer haunts the Republican Party is an opportunity for the GOP to continue their return to a philosophy of freedom.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.