So, Arlen Specter is now a Democrat. That's old news. But with all the media attention focused on the short-term effects of Specter's midnight conversion — thus likely giving Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate — commentators have missed the long-range (and more significant) consequences. Specter's action emboldens the rise of an energized "middle" in American politics. That could be the catalyst, over time, for a new significant political movement — or even the formation of a new political party.
Those with short memories have undoubtedly forgotten that, several years ago, Democrat Joe Lieberman made a similar move, leaving his party so that he could retain his Senate seat. (Lieberman became an independent, eventually turning his back on the Democrats to the point that he supported the opposition's candidate for president, John McCain.) His complaint was much the same as Specter's: his party had moved so far out on the fringe that it no longer represented the traditional values he once associated with Democrats. (Not coincidentally, the voters in his old party no longer liked him, either.)
But Lieberman and Specter are not alone; they are joined by an informal group of about 20 senators, roughly split between Republicans (like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and George Voinivich) and Democrats (like Mary Landrieu, Max Baucus, and Ben Nelson), who feel out of place with the activism of their respective parties. The moderate Republican senators rejected much of President George W. Bush's right-wing cultural agenda. The moderate Democrats in the Senate have supported much of Obama's economic activism, but they are far less comfortable with his proposed tax-code revisions, carbon taxes, and health-care reform.
Expect these "moderates" to begin to work together as an informal force in the Senate. They — not Republican or Democratic leaders —will control what happens to Obama's domestic agenda in the next few years.
Still, the larger and more significant question is whether this informal group will be the beginning of a far more revolutionary step that leads to a centrist independent candidate challenging both Obama and the Republicans in the 2012 election.
It's not out of the question, especially if "the Senate middle" melds with "the radical middle," the growing number of voters from all sides who think both parties have sold out to the titans of Wall Street.
An odd coalition perhaps. But as the poet once said, politics makes strange bedfellows.
A sign of the time
National emergencies often create the conditions for new coalitions and parties, as the old ones are found inadequate to meet the tasks of a changed world. The Civil War crisis crushed the Whigs and gave birth to the GOP. The Great Depression was poised to alter our current two-party alignment. The fact that it didn't may owe more to the fact that Huey Long, FDR's greatest antagonist, was assassinated in 1935, before he could do the president any electoral damage.
Right now, the Republicans are reeling, just as they were in the early years of the New Deal. But it's for a much different reason. The current party's core was decimated not by Obama — who, after all, won only by seven percentage points — but by its former standard bearer, George W. Bush. Though social liberals would hardly agree, Bush acted like a Democrat on so many issues — hugely expanding the size and power of government, creating new Medicare entitlements, and engaging in an expansionist foreign policy — that he ripped the heart out of his own party.