Sen. Arlen Specter (D‑Pa.) had every reason to free himself from the wing nuts that bind the rusty Republican Party. His job was imperiled by a far-right primary challenger. It’s likely other Republican elected officials, perhaps Maine’s Sens. Olympia Snow or Susan Collins, will join the exodus.
But what of the Democratic Party? What does it gain from poaching Specter? The absorption of “moderate” Republicans will only shift the Democratic caucus, and the country’s perceived political center, toward the right.
Naturally, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is overjoyed. Upstart progressive populists, the very people that turned the party’s fortunes around in recent election cycles, have been given a very clear message from the bosses: Welcome Specter. “Our goal in 2010 is not to have a primary,” Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney told reporters.
In other words, forget the fact that on his first day as a Democrat, Specter said he would support a filibuster of the Employee Free Choice Act. On his second day, he voted against the Obama budget. On the third day, he voted against the housing bankruptcy reform legislation, which would have given a break to families facing foreclosure. And he continues to oppose a healthcare reform bill that includes a public option.
The new chair of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Clintonista Bruce Reed crooned in a Slate.com article that Specter’s defection was “an encouraging omen for Obama’s effort to build a new, pragmatic, post-partisan politics.”
“Post-partisan politics” is code for a politics that basks in the glow of the status quo – a politics that accommodates itself to the needs of corporate America. In this context, “ideological politics” becomes code for people who care about such quaint principles as democracy and justice. People like crazed ideologue Chris Bowers.
On June 5, Bowers will be attending the next committee meeting of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Party, of which he is a member. Writing on OpenLeft.com, Bowers expressed his hope that he would find other members “who don’t want to just vote for Arlen Specter now that he has changed parties, but hasn’t changed his positions on apparently anything.” “If Specter wants to become the Democratic nominee,” Bowers wrote, “then he needs to earn it through a contested primary with an actual Democrat.”
For having had the temerity to write that Specter was “the Democrat Most Deserving of a Primary Challenge,” Reed slammed Bowers for mounting a Republican-like “campaign to purge non-ideologues.”
“The object lesson is clear: Setting out to purge your party of independent thinkers won’t make it stronger,” Reed wrote. “Democrats should take that lesson to heart.”
Bowers had suggested that Specter face a “primary,” not a “purge.” There is a difference. Primaries are the main mechanism of internal party democracy, by which the parties’ rank and file selects candidates for general elections. As former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean explained to the Huffington Post, if Specter doesn’t change his positions “of course there is going to be a Democratic primary.”
Democratic bigwigs in D.C. and Pennsylvania need to understand that the Democratic Party is not their private preserve. There must be a primary, and Democratic voters must have their say.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.