What Does Specter’s Switch Mean for Racial Justice?

By Channing Kennedy Apr 28, 2009

For those just joining the fray: This morning Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter announced that he is officially switching parties, from Republican to Democratic. Pending the long-disputed seating of Minnesota’s Al Franken, this puts the Democrats at a 60-seat filibuster-proof Senate supermajority — filibuster-proof, that is to say, if all Democrats vote the same way. But Specter’s a bit of a loose cannon, to be polite, and an opportunist, to be blunt. In press conferences today, he all but spelled out that he decided to switch based on polling numbers indicating he’d do better in the 2010 election running as a Democrat than as a Republican. So, in terms of votes, it may not make much of a difference. One of the most concrete ramifications of this development for the racial justice movement is around the Employee Free Choice Act, which would empower unions and help protect the economies of communities of color. Specter once supported EFCA, then flipped on it, and has devoted time today to confirming that he will not flop back to supporting it, regardless of his party alignment. He thus joins the likes of the Blue Dog Democrats and Joe Lieberman — Democrats in name who vote conservative, many of whom came out against EFCA once Specter’s renouncement of it made its passage mathematically difficult.
From his statement today:

My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords’ switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.

On the other hand, Specter’s major schism with the GOP manifested large in his vote to support the stimulus, a piece of legislation that the party fought hard to present a united front against. And just today, Specter’s vote helped confirm former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services, an appointment much contested by the Republican pro-life movement. Would Specter have voted for her anyway, given his relatively pro-choice voting record? Could be. At the end of the day, Specter’s still nearing the end of his term, and while it’s accepted that part of the deal for his defection was that he’d face no primary opponent as a Democrat, he’s still got to face Toomey, the hardline Republican who wanted to oust him in the Republican primary, who’ll now probably grab the nomination unopposed. While Specter may well defeat Toomey, one can argue that Democrats and labor would have been better off if Specter had stayed Republican and gotten defeated by Toomey in the 2010 primary, leaving Toomey open to defeat by a more hardline, pro-EFCA Democrat. As it is, Pennsylvania labor and EFCA supporters may be backed into a corner — forced into supporting the Democrat, even if that Democrat is anti-EFCA Specter, because there’s no other option. For more on Specter’s switch and its ramifications, I’d recommend Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo, and the always well-researched Nate Silver at 538.