It’s not a happy time to be a Republican. After first losing control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2006, and then the White House this past election cycle, the Republican Party has lost a big name Republican senator from a blue state. Specter needed to switch to survive a primary challenge from right wing Republican Pat Toomey. Whatever the politics of the decision, it’s given the Democrats what they want: the opportunity for a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Assuming Al Franken, Democratic Senator from Minnesota, who is facing a court challenge over the results of the 2008 Minnesota senate election from incumbent Norm Coleman, becomes seated, the Democratic caucus will reach the magic number 60 in the Senate required for shutting down the filibuster.
On the other hand, this gives the Democratic Party a chance to do what they do best: screw up. After taking full control of the legislative and executive branch, voters are going to demand results by the time the 2010 midterm elections roll around. There are huge challenges ahead to provide millions of unemployed Americans with jobs, solve wars plaguing Iraq and Afghanistan, and take leadership on energy and climate change. The first 100 days of the Obama presidency look promising, much like the beginning of his candidacy. The question is if the power to do even bolder things with a new Senate majority is something the Democratic Party can handle.
It’s possible for the next few years to go one of two ways. The first way is much like the Carter presidency. The Democratic Party in 1978 faced a tough time with an energy crisis, inflation, and unemployment, but they had control of Congress and the Presidency. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to lead, the Carter administration and Congress were brought down by petty squabbling over pork-barrel projects and the inability of Carter to work with Congress to accomplish goals of providing universal health care and jobs.
The other option the Democratic Party has is to take this as a chance to lead. It wouldn’t have been surprising if you had thought in 1933 that this was the end of the American dream. In addition to massive unemployment, a complete shutdown of the financial system, a collapse in prices and industrial production, there were environmental disasters like the Dust Bowl. Dust storms all across the Western United States created from years of soil erosion ruined farms, blackened the sky, and even hit cities along the East coast. It appeared as if this could have been the end of times. Yet the Roosevelt administration responded with the most comprehensive set of programs ever seen to take on these challenges and provide relief and recovery in the New Deal that today we remember him as one of our greatest presidents.
The Republican Party has not made the best of choices over the past 8 years. The Democratic Party has made some good ones over Obama’s first 100 days in office by providing a stimulus package, shutting down Guantanamo, increasing transparency, and reaching out to allies and enemies. Still, it looked like the Democratic Party made good choices over Jimmy Carter’s first 100 days as well. Arlen Specter’s switch now gives the Democrats the opportunity to take it to the next level, tackle the biggest problems, and bring results needed to the table.
Spenser Skates is a member of the Class of 2010.