America's newest Democrat, Pennsylvania's Sen. Arlen Specter, has been called many things since last week's big switcheroo. The Republicans he abandoned after 43 years blast him as an opportunist, left-winger, defector, or dead weight. The Democrats he embraced herald him as a public servant with a piercing intellect. "Guts and grit personified," judged Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
The predictable brickbats and bouquets mask deep soul-searching that was only ratcheted up by Specter's exit. Some Republicans spin his about-face as a shot in the arm to get the Grand Old Party back on its feet. Others privately worry that the patient is already on life support.
In a New York Times op-ed last week, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine wrote that being a GOP moderate can be like being a cast member on Survivor, confronted not only by challenges but "the distinct feeling that you're no longer welcome in the tribe." She warned that the GOP cannot grow into a majority if it shrinks ideological confines.
The numbers don't look good. With 40 GOP senators and the increasing likelihood that Al Franken will capture Minnesota, Democrats could soon achieve a filibuster-proof 60. The House breakdown: 256 to 178. The governors: 28 Democrats, 22 Republicans. Nationally, Dems outnumber Republicans, 35 percent to 28 percent, according to a Gallup Poll average for the first quarter of 2009. And a potential time bomb for the GOP is Barack Obama's having won two thirds of the under-30 vote.
"We've been an airplane crashing into the mountain, and members [of Congress] see it, and nobody knows who has their hands on the controls," former House Republican Tom Davis of Virginia, a moderate, says now. A year ago, he labeled his party's brand "in the trash can" and called the climate for GOP House lawmakers "the worst since Watergate."
Some argue for going back to basics: low taxes, less government, strong national defense. Others urge outreach to young, minority, and swing voters. Davis insists the GOP should stop stressing cultural issues, such as guns and gay marriage, and unlock its doors. "Parties are coalitions," he says, "not private clubs."
Republicans point out that if Senate Dems reach 60, the majority could fracture under demands from its competing wings: pro-labor vs. pro-business, for example. The truth about today's Senate Dems is that some are not reliable party-line voters—namely Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas—so 60 votes cannot be assumed.
Specter is a big prize, says another Republican. But he insists that it won't be long before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have headaches. "They'll have to take extra Tylenol to deal with Democrats standing in line outside their offices, demanding more attention to their priorities. And that's where the legislative process breaks down. And it will break down for them." His comment carries a hopeful whiff of schadenfreude. While it's much too early for that, it beats crying out loud.