As if last year's presidential election were not proof enough, Sen. Arlen Specter's switch from Republican to Democrat confirms it. The political landscape in America has shifted – from a center-conservative to a center-liberal one. For a country whose ideological "middle" determines so much in politics, the question is whether the center will hold.
The Pennsylvania senator – famously independent – frankly acknowledged this shift when he said yesterday that he couldn't win a GOP primary in a state where last year, 200,000 Republicans registered as Democrats.
Polls leading up to President Obama's 100th day in office map out the new terrain. The young president, ramping up government spending and economic and social intervention, enjoys a favorable job approval rating of 63 percent, according to an April poll from the Pew Research Center. That solid affirmation comes from 93 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of independents, and only 30 percent of Republicans.
With Senator Specter quite possibly handing the Democrats the filibuster-proof 60-seat majority (that Senate race in Minnesota is still undetermined), with a Democratic-controlled House, and with a GOP boiling down to a mainly Southern and hard-line conservative essence – with all that, there will be less restraint on Democrats than if the GOP were still in the game. One-party-rule runs the danger of overreach, as Republicans learned in 2006, and Democrats learned in 1994.
So it's encouraging to hear Specter remark that he will "not be an automatic 60th vote." Other Democratic moderates in the Senate and fiscally conservative "blue dog" Democrats in the House will have to play a tempering role.
Perhaps unnoticed by the general public, there already is a lively debate among Democrats on several of Obama's key issues. Some are pushing a new government-sponsored health insurance program, for instance, while the White House has said it's open to other ways to get coverage for all Americans. The tussle here is between those who believe such a government program would help control costs (one reason is it would not have to make a profit), and those who fear it would undermine private-sector competitors.
Similarly, a fight is shaping up over carbon cap-and-trade, which Obama supports as a way to reduce greenhouse gases but other Democrats complain is too costly (the White House should not give in on the need to curb carbon emissions). It's unclear whether legislation or Environmental Protection Agency regulation will end up driving this issue.
On the great deficit-pile-up, moderate Democrats and Republicans (a dwindling herd) must find a way to bring long-term costs under control. If they can't hold the line, there is always public opinion. The Pew poll shows 60 percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of the economy, but they're more ambivalent about longer-term and longer-lasting issues such as healthcare, tax policy, and the budget deficit (which all have about 50 percent approval).
Most Americans are still wary of big government, even if they appear to support a big push at this moment of economic crisis. Specter and other moderates can help Obama remember this.