Eight years ago DeLay-Gingrich-Bush style politics bit the Republican Party in the ass. Hard. Today we see that what separates the GOP from higher-order primates is the ability of the latter, and inability of the former, to learn from such a mistake.
The year was 2001. Senator Jim Jeffords (R-VT) had committed a grievous ideological error. By opposing President Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut proposal, Jeffords forced the White House to accept compromise legislation with a mere $1.2 trillion in tax cuts. If that doesn't sound like a crime in need of immediate and vicious retribution, well, then you don't understand the brilliance of the people who were in charge back then. Frist, Bush, DeLay, and the rest of the GOP power brokers were unambiguous: Jeffords had to pay.
The GOP leadership in Congress refused to renew a dairy subsidy bill that was important to Vermont farmers or to fully fund Jeffords' pet legislation, the dastardly and controversial "Individuals with Disabilities Education Act." Jim, you partisan hack. The White House added petty insults like refusing to invite Jeffords to an event at which a Vermonter was given the national Teacher of the Year award. "Heh heh heh," the GOP braintrust chuckled amidst considerable back-slapping and cigar-puffing, "we showed that fruity Yankee."
Unable to conceive of what Jeffords could possibly do in response to their coordinated onslaught, they were legitimately shocked when he responded to their "fuck you" with a resounding, "Oh yeah? Well fuck you." Jeffords left the GOP and threw the majority to the Democrats for the first time since 1994.
The GOP learned nothing from the ordeal, of course, and in the intervening eight years it has grown even less tolerant of "RINOs" (moderates) or any deviation from the ideological gospel. It would be facile to say that Arlen Specter's flip represents mere opportunism. In reality, this represents the culmination of fifteen years of hostility and harrassment directed at the dopey Pennsylvanian. Politicians expect that from the opposition, but not from their own party.
Back in 2005 Jeffrey Toobin wrote an excellent piece about how all-or-nothing GOP "nuclear option" politics were slowly crushing all of the party's moderates. Having already claimed the careers of most of his liberal Republican colleagues, Specter bore the full brunt of the talk radio hostility alone.
Specter, of Pennsylvania, was elected in 1980. These days, in his office overlooking the Supreme Court, he surveys, not happily, the current state of his party—especially the disappearance of moderates like him. “We had a lot of senators,” he said. “We could go on and on and on,” and he named, as examples of this group, Bob Packwood, Mark Hatfield, Lowell Weicker, Charles Mathias, and John Heinz. “And we don’t have them now. So it’s not good for the Party, and it’s not good for the country. It’s not good for the Party because you need balance. You need to be a national party.”
By 2005 Specter, a 25 year Senate veteran, was reduced to taking orders from Texans and Alabamans who had been in the Senate for about five minutes. The party humiliated him by forcing him to audition for his Judiciary chairmanship – on national television.
“I have not and would not use a litmus test to deny confirmation to pro-life nominees,” Specter said, in the weary monotone of a Soviet prisoner forced to confess his ideological errors. “I have voted for all of President Bush’s judicial nominees in committee and on the floor, and I have no reason to believe that I’ll be unable to support any individual President Bush finds worthy of nomination.”
“Everyone who pays attention knows that Senator Specter comes from a state and a segment of the Party that are to the left of the President and the Republican caucus,” John Cornyn, a conservative first-term senator from Texas, said. “I have been pretty pleased from what I’ve seen of Senator Specter’s performance so far.”
Specter didn't need the GOP, and the GOP didn't think it needed him. After nearly being defeated by a wingnut primary challenger in 2004, he won the general election by 11% – in a state John Kerry won. He didn't have a hard time getting Pennsylvanians to vote for him; it was the DC radio hosts, the cowboy-hatted hick Congressmen from Texas, and the Colorado Springs televangelists that were giving him grief. As he geared up for another brutal primary challenge from far right "Club for Growth" candidate Pat Toomey, we don't need deep insights into Specter's mind to understand how readily he might conclude "You know what? I don't need this shit."
And he doesn't.
What did all the hostility toward Specter accomplish? What did Rush and Hannity and the Free Republic forums get in return for savagely attacking this nondescript guy for more than a decade? Well, they successfully drove him out of the party just as the GOP desperately clings to their last shred of influence in DC – the 41 seats needed to defeat cloture. As the increasingly readable David Frum said,
For a long time, the loudest and most powerful voices in the conservative world have told us that people like Specter aren’t real Republicans – that they don’t belong in the party. Now he’s gone, and with him the last Republican leverage within any of the elected branches of government.
Specter could have waited, of course, until late 2009 or early 2010. He claims that the timing of his announcement was dictated by the legalities of forming his re-election campaign. Maybe. In reality I think this is an old man, one who has had a brush with death and answers only to his conscience at this point, twisting the knife. This was carefully timed to inflict maximum damage. He is once again responding predictably to the actions of a party that never seems to learn the lesson that every ideological vendetta leads to ruin. Frum asks,
For years, many in the conservative world have wished for an ideologically purer GOP. Their wish has been granted. Happy?
Good question. They have plenty of time to ponder it.