What does the future hold for Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter? A lot of uncertainty, soured relationships and possible disaster. And that's just with his newfound friends in the Democratic Party.
There's no doubt Senate Democrats wanted Specter's help with the president's agenda this year. His vote in the Democratic column could mean significantly better chances for the Obama administration's proposals on health care, energy and education. So Specter's support will be valuable to his new party in the short run.
The long run is another matter. Go behind the news conferences and photo ops, and Specter's fellow Democrats aren't exactly welcoming him with open arms and warm feelings or even respect. Specter's defection, one well-connected party strategist told me, "seems to me like the cowardly act of a cornered man." Underlying Democratic feelings about Specter is this fact: Even though the party faithful are happy to have Specter's vote in the coming months, they would rather have someone else come November 2010, when Pennsylvania elects its next senator. "As a Democrat who wants Obama's agenda passed, am I happy? Yes," the Democratic strategist said. "Would I rather have a real Democrat? Absolutely. Do I think I will eventually get one? Yes."
It shouldn't surprise Specter that his new allies in the Democratic Party don't think of him as a "real" Democrat. Why should they? He's a Democrat of necessity, and everyone knows it. And even though there's word that Senate Democratic leaders have assured Specter that he won't face a challenge from within his new party next year, there's really no way they can guarantee that another Pennsylvania Democrat won't make the run. If you were a true-blue party loyalist in Philadelphia, would you want Specter as your candidate or a "real" Democrat?
"If (Pennsylvania Gov.) Ed Rendell ran against Specter, he would mop the floor with him," the strategist told me. "If (Philadelphia Mayor Michael) Nutter ran against him, he would mop the floor with him." A number of other Democrats might also prevail against Specter in a party primary. Who can say for sure they won't try?
So Specter, 79 years old and apparently determined to serve another term in the Senate, is in a very vulnerable position. "Democrats have the blackmail card," the strategist explained. "In the past, the Republicans could say to Specter, 'We're going to challenge you in the primary,' and he could say, 'To hell with you I'll become a Democrat.' He can't say that anymore. If the Democrats say, 'We're going to challenge you in the primary,' he can't say, 'To hell with you I'll become a Republican.' They'll say, 'Noooooo, you won't.'"
As far as Republicans are concerned, it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. More than a few in the GOP were gobsmacked when Specter explained his defection in nakedly strategic terms. "He made perfectly clear in a private conversation with (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell that his decision was made … when his pollster came to him and said, 'You will not win the Republican primary,'" a top Senate aide told me. "So the decision to run as a Democrat wasn't because he wanted to leave the Republican Party, or because the party was mean to him." Specter said much the same thing in public; his decision reeked of sheer desperation.
So now, it's on to the new 60-vote, filibuster-proof Democratic majority (assuming Al Franken eventually wins in Minnesota). Even though there's been a lot of attention paid to the Republican Party's new powerlessness and it's true, the GOP is toast Specter's jump also creates new pressure within the Democratic caucus. With Specter, and 41 votes, Republicans had the power to stop anything, but only if all their members stuck together. That made the inclinations of moderates like Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Specter critical to the GOP's fortunes. Now, with just 40 votes, that doesn't really matter. Republicans can stick together and still not stop anything.
Democrats, on the other hand, now have the power to pass anything, but only if all their members stick together. That makes moderates like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln critical to the party's fortunes. "From now on, the story is, 'Can the president keep his troops in line?'" the Senate aide told me.
And the newest Democrat, Arlen Specter, better keep his new colleagues happy. After all, his future is in their hands.