Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party carried two reminders one bipartisan and one strictly for Republicans.
The bipartisan reminder is that for too many politicians, self-preservation is job one. Specter, who enjoyed the support of George W. Bush and conservative luminary Rick Santorum during his bid to win a fifth Senate term in 2004, didn't switch parties as a matter of principle.
About this, he was perfectly candid: "I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate."
Translation: "I am 20 points down in the polls to a GOP challenger, and I have a better chance of winning a sixth term in the Senate running as a Democrat. I'd be short-changing the American people if I left Congress after only 30 years."
The reminder to Republicans is that they are still in deep trouble. In 2006, Republicans lost 30 House seats, six Senate seats and majority control in both chambers of Congress.
In 2008, they lost 21 more House seats, eight Senate seats and the White House. The downdraft from federal elections wiped out GOP candidates in states that only four years earlier had been solidly Republican.
With Specter's defection, Republicans are still playing a game of political subtraction. You only win, however, by addition.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Democrats were subtracting, Republicans adding: Bob Martinez in Florida, Ben "Nighthorse" Campbell in Colorado, Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Phil Gramm and a young legislator named Rick Perry in Texas.
Now the arithmetic is reversed. No one will mistake Specter for the ghost of Ronald Reagan. But Specter entered the Senate in 1980 as a member of Reagan's big tent Republican Party. His departure, after two electoral expulsions for Republicans, leaves behind a depressingly small, increasingly regional tent.
How do you rebuild a bigger, national party? For starters, you show tolerance for Republicans who win in states or districts that aren't reliably red but who aren't necessarily ideological pole sitters. Specter's first vote as a Democrat was against the Obama budget.
Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a real conservative and fighter for reform in Congress, said he'd rather have 30 principled Republicans in the Senate than 60 without a set of beliefs.
DeMint is wrong on the timing. When you have a large majority, you can afford to purge your ranks. When you're one vote shy of becoming a politically irrelevant minority without the ability to filibuster, it's the equivalent of calling in fire on your own position.
But he's right about the principles. Republicans won a congressional majority in 1994 two years after a disappointing election in which they lost the White House by offering a clear alternative to the scandal-plagued, profligate spending Democratic majority: limited government, fiscal responsibility, accountable leadership and individual freedom.
By 2006, those principles were gone. And still in 2009, even with Nancy Pelosi, John Murtha, Harry Reid and Chris Dodd running Capitol Hill, most of the public can't tell the difference between an old Democrat and a new Republican.
Two events in recent years make clear there's still a large national constituency for principled conservatism: the outrage of Americans at the Supreme Court's Kelo decision in 2005, and the growing movement of citizens who realize a massive expansion of government power and spending will bankrupt our nation.
Those should be Republican voters. In 2008, however, they voted Democratic, wasted their votes on third parties, or stayed home. And they'll continue to do so, as will a majority of Americans, until the Republican Party offers them a clear alternative.