The last time a party-switch had this much potential to change the equation in Washington was a few months into the nascent administration of George W. Bush, when Jim Jeffords
, a Vermont Republican, changed his political identity to "Independent" (but announced he was caucusing with the Democrats).
This switch gave control of the Senate calendar to Tom Daschle
and-possibly more significantly-put the Senate Judiciary Committee in the hands of the new chairman, Jeffords' homeboy Patrick Leahy
. The liberal Vermonter suddenly had serious input over Bush's appointments to the federal bench. This was no small matter: For starters, if not for Leahy and the Judiciary Committee Democrats, Miguel Estrada
would now be on the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, he was "Borked."
Conservatives were understandably peeved at Jeffords. Some, including Karl Rove, were also miffed at the media, which treated Jeffords as some sort of reincarnation of Edmund G. Ross
. (It turned out that Jeffords' defection was actually prompted by something not all that noble: Rove and the rest of the Bush staff had neglected to invite him to a White House ceremony for the Teacher of the Year, who happened to be from Vermont). And, oh yes, Daschle had promised Jeffords a committee chairmanship.
In other words, the conservative critique that much of the media has a double-standard regarding party-switchers has some merit: When Republicans morph into Democrats, we tend to act like they finally saw the light, and quote them ad nauseam about how the Republican Party has gotten too narrow, etc., etc.
But, Lord forbid, when an officeholder moves the other way-goes from Democrat to Republican-we concentrate on the tactical advantage to the party switcher.
If we keep bias out of it and evaluate the Arlen Specter switcheroo on its merits, two facts seem undeniable to me: First, the national Republican Party is indeed moving in a way that makes it harder for Northeastern moderates from "blue" states to keep winning statewide-just as the Democratic Party is moving to the left and making it hard for "red" state Dems. Secondly, when any of these dudes molt out of their old skins and into a new one, they are thinking first and foremost of Numero Uno.