In 1965 Arlen Specter ran on the Republican ticket for District Attorney of Philadelphia and won. Specter was actually a registered Democrat and even more surprising, a member of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. The year was a challenge for any politician. And none other than Richard Nixon gave the GOP some timely advice: “There is room for both the left wing and the right wing in the party…and each must learn to live with the other.” Nixon wasn’t the only one speaking about the conflict.
Former Sen. Prescott Bush warned Sen. Everett Dirksen (minority leader at the time) about speaking at a November, 1965 rally in Hartford—Bush said Dirksen would be stepping into a bitter battle between GOP conservatives and liberals. Dirksen cancelled his speech.
And the GOP wasn’t alone in having internal conflicts—the Democrats had the same issues but as now, their public relations machine was slicker. The Prescott Evening Courier pointed out how the Dems dealt with the problem: “what the Democrats long have done—be conservative in the South, liberal in the North.”
It’s pointless to analyze Specter’s party switch because the reasons are obvious and astute analyses abound. He did what he did in 1965 to get what he wanted. What canny politician doesn’t?
What isn’t pointless is the dialog about that “big tent” the GOP likes to refer to. This morning on Fox and Friends, Geraldo Rivera referred to party leadership as being dominated by old Southern white men. Rivera gave voice to a mistaken stereotype. Apparently Rivera forgot RNC chairman Michael Steele, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and other minorities who figure into the GOP structure. Perhaps he doesn’t know about groups like Republican Majority for Choice.
As social and fiscal conservatives took an attitude towards Specter’s reclaiming his Democratic Party heritage, along the lines of “Good riddance,” social liberals felt differently. The Republican Majority for Choice issued a statement: "Senator Specter's decision to switch from the GOP to the Democratic Party after decades as a Republican leader in Congress delivers another blow to a hemorrhaging Republican Party that continues its march away from the mainstream...Specter is joining the more than 240,000 former Pennsylvania Republican voters who are a microcosm of voters nationally who switched last year to the Democratic Party. The vast majority of these voters were pro-choice, fiscal conservatives who believed that the Party had become too monolithic and extreme in their agenda.”
Yesterday in a bizarre exchange with an emotional CNN pundit, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) described the GOP as a “big tent” of freedom. I think I understand what the senator, a man I admire, is saying. But how does federal control of private issues mesh with social moderates and liberals?
Many of us simply want a political party that governs according to the limits of the Constitution, respects state sovereignty, protects our country’s borders and people, sees to national security and limits federal spending. Many of us do not want the government in our personal lives. We do not like bailouts and we do not like the lack of oversight our government is guilty of when it comes to taxpayer money. We can be found among registrants of both political parties. Judging by the past and the present, and regardless of our party affiliation, we are not being represented. Some have said Rush Limbaugh speaks for the GOP. It’s undeniable moveon.org speaks for the current Democratic Party. For those of us who define ourselves by that dreaded word, centrists, what exactly is being brought to our table by either party at present?
And the real reason Specter switched is as old as politics—he had prosecuted a number of fellow Democrats on corruption charges. The party he has now returned to didn’t cotton to their dirty laundry being aired at the time. If Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) comes to mind, you and I are in sync.
As 1965 drew to a close, GOP National Committee chairman Ray Bliss saw the picture the same way Democrats see it today: “Republicans should quit quarreling over issues, should pick handsome, photogenic candidates…buy plenty of TV time and win.” A look at Specter’s switch from Dem to GOP confirms that over a period of more than 40 years, not much has changed.
Look at Specter switch in 1965 shows GOP battle scars nothing new by Kay B. Day
Good commentary by Christine Todd Whitman (4-29-09) at The New York Times: