John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he served as Chief Speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.
By John Avlon
Special to CNN
Senator Arlen Specter's defection to the Democrats yesterday will bring the Democrats to a filibuster proof 60 seat majority once Al Franken is seated. This is bad for believers in the virtue of checks and balances, but the reality is that Republicans have only themselves to blame.
Centrists have been forced to the margins of the Republican Party, as the party itself has been forced to the margins of American politics. The two dynamics are, of course, directly connected.
In his press conference, Specter named Joe Lieberman as his political soul mate, a man who lost a Democratic primary to a left-wing anti-war candidate but easily won re-election as an Independent in Connecticut. But his real and rightful anger was directed at conservative activists who have targeted centrist Republican incumbents in recent years, including Specter.
Among these ranks have been Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrist and New Mexico Congresswoman Heather Wilson. All were challenged by conservatives backed by the Club for Growth who were cheered on by right-wing radio. All lost their primary challenges. And all the victorious conservatives were easily beaten in the general election by Democrats.
This is the dynamic that has led the Republican Party into retreat and increasing irrelevance, preaching to a shrinking choir instead of building a big tent. Senator Specter was acting in self-interest – he knew that he had a better chance of winning a general election than a closed partisan primary.
But the fact that Democrats welcomed him with open arms while Republicans like Rush Limbaugh said good riddance after attacking him for years, speaks to the shifting fault-lines below what could be a larger, Obama-led realignment.