They say among the first signs of a sinking ship is that the rats begin to desert. Witness now Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter bailing out of the leaky U.S.S. G.O.P.
Were it not for the fact that Mr. Specter's party switch may give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Republicans across the country would likely greet this news with a mixture of relief and indifference; for many, Mr. Specter had long ago ceased being a Republican on almost any question that matters. As Mark Hemingway put it in National Review's blog "The Corner," "I read that he was switching parties, but I was disappointed to learn he's still a Democrat."
But there are several wider trends in play here, all of them boding ill for the Republicans. For one, Mr. Specter's departure continues the long, sad decline of the Northeastern Republican. Another example: Last week, Republican Jim Tedisco lost the special election in New York's 20th Congressional District, a once-solid GOP stronghold that has now sent two straight Democrats to Washington.
With Northeastern Republicans now an endangered breed, and formerly red Western states like Arizona and Colorado getting purpler by the day, Republicans face the prospect of becoming a regional party representing the Deep South - a development that would spell disaster for Republican electoral presidential prospects and put the presidency out of reach for the foreseeable future.
But the Specter exit is also a symptom of the large and widening disconnect between grass-roots conservatives and the Republican governing class. Scott Rasmussen, in a recent analysis, points out that the stimulus package is only the latest in a long line of outrages, from out-of-control Bush-era spending, to illegal immigration, to bank bailouts, that have seen elected Republicans sharply at odds with their constituencies. He notes, "The gap between Beltway Republicans and the Republican base is part of a wider gap between the mainstream and the political class. On many issues, the gap between mainstream America and the political class is bigger than the gap between mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats."
Republicans vanishing from the map all up the Northeast; red states turning purple and blue states turning bluer; Republican senators and congressmen increasingly disconnected from the people whom they, in theory, serve. These are the perfect conditions in which to incubate either the final destruction of a movement - or perhaps, its glorious rebirth.
Matt Patterson, a Montgomery County columnist and commentator, is the author of "Union of Hearts: The Abraham Lincoln & Ann Rutledge Story." His e-mail is email@example.com.