Arlen SpecterI was thinking about Arlen Specter this morning.

It all goes back to my often stated observation that the policies of such conservative icons of the past like Ronald Reagan and Dick Nixon would place them well inside the mainstream of the Democratic Party. There is a caveat, however. Politicians operate in the environment in which they find themselves. This is especially true of conservatives. So if Reagan and Nixon were in politics today, they would have far more extreme views than they held when they were in power.

This brings us back to Arlen Specter. Most politicians don't really believe in anything. I know that's cynical, but how else do you explain the vast majority of the conservative movement whose members almost never get outside the mainstream of the party? Last year they were in favor of birth control; this year, they stop on a dime and reverse themselves. Specter is an exception.

When he decided to run in the Democratic Party, his views were well inside the mainstream of the party. In fact, they'd been so for a while. I understand why the Pennsylvania Democratic voters rejected him. But he wasn't just doing a political calculation when he changed parties. He was right when he said, "As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party."

What is surprising is that so few Republicans do the same. Despite what it says, the Republican Party is an extremely small tent. The Democratic Party, by contrast, is a big tent; just look at the Blue Dogs. Just look at Arlen Specter, who despite his reputation is still very conservative.

Thought for the day: how is it that Barry Goldwater, so extreme that he almost tore apart the Republican Party in 1965, was to the left of the party just ten years later?

Update

Ezra Klein has a good article this morning:

Perhaps my biggest frustration with the U.S. news media (and yes, I am a card-carrying member) is that we permit the two parties to decide what is "left" and what is "right." The way it works, roughly, is that anything Democrats support becomes "left," and everything Republicans support becomes "right." But that makes "left" and "right" descriptions of where the two parties stand at any given moment rather than descriptions of the philosophies, ideologies or ideas that animate, or should animate, political debates.

Of course, Klein falls into some false equivalence too. It is wrong to compare Democratic compromises (e.g. lack of a public option) to Republican wholesale reversals (e.g. opposing their own long-time private insurance healthcare reform). As good as Klein is, he is part of the problem.

Update 25 February 2012

Brad DeLong says much the same thing about Ezra Klein's article, but better:

So Ezra Klein has three substantive policy flip-flop by Republicans, and zero by Democrats. And these examples support Ezra's language that "the parties"—not the Republican Party, "the parties"—"changed policy when it was politically convenient to do so, not when conditions changed and new information came to light."

But the Democratic Party changed policy when conditions changed, and new information came to light...

But there are differences in honesty and intellectual consistency as far as their commitment to substantive policies are between the two parties.

And by not stressing those differences, in my view Ezra contributes to a problem.