Prediction is Hard (Especially about the Future)

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So my earlier prediction that Arlen Specter would become a Democratic stalwart in the Senate has not fared so well.  First, he voted against the budget (I wrote that off to his already established opposition to that spending plan as it would have seemed too opportunistic to switch on that!)  Then he reasserted his opposition to Obama's health care proposals and card-check unionization.  And then he dropped the bomb:  saying the Minnesota courts should "do justice" and seat Norm Coleman (Specter says he forgot what team he was on -- switch parties after 29 years and it slips your mind!)

Of course, my prediction about the repercussions if he didn't become a Democrat's Democrat was correct.  The Democratic caucus, under considerable pressure from liberal interest groups, voted not to recognize his seniority (at least until after such point as he was elected as a Democrat).  This makes it increasingly likely that Specter will face a primary challenge from Joe Sestak who will be well funded by the liberal groups who despise Specter for his work on the Judiciary committee over the years.

Even if Specter had moved further to the left, it is not that unusual for the receiving party to be somewhat inhospitable to a switcher.  Many of the southern Democrats who switched parties as that region went Republican were challenged or defeated in primaries by purer conservatives.  As the Northeast goes Democratic, Republican switchers probably shouldn't expect much better treatment.  Of course, the Democrats are taking a bit of a gamble that Sestak can beat Toomey head-to-head.  

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Nolan’s update makes me wish I had taken the time to write up the various reasons I disagreed with his original, refreshingly out-on-a-limb comment. But now I’m thinking, ‘Prediction is easy, especially about the past, so should I bother?’

Well, even with 100+ days behind us, there is still plenty of future ahead of us, so I'll venture a somewhat different genuine prediction than Nolan’s ("genuine" as in, about events yet to come). I would be interested in seeing counterpart expectations generated from alternative theories that take a “strong parties” perspective.

Here is a strict version of my expectation. New Specter will be just like Old Specter, voting with the Democrats sometime and Republicans others, and with a much more even split than most/all other Senators. In short, the Specter switch won’t matter at all. This is what the pure version of Pivotal Politics, for example, would say. Not many people would buy this, however, so let’s take it a step farther by trying to incorporate Nolan's electoral observations into my essentially take-elections-as-given theory.

Specter switched parties for transparent electoral reasons, so to see what difference it makes in governing, one has to size up whether and how his electorally induced preferences will change as a result of the fact that he now has to win his seat from the left side of the Pennsylvania electoral median rather than from the right side. Models of electoral competition don’t speak very directly and generally to this situation, however it is difficult to concoct a plausible scenario in which New Specter ends up right of Old Specter, and it’s easy to do the opposite, so let’s just accept the assertion (nowhere disputed to the best of my knowledge) that New Specter IS now playing to a more leftish audience than Old Specter. (This quasi-theory based assertion is certainly consistent with Nolan's data, too.) How does this parties-in-electorate induced preferences shift affect what policy comes out of the Senate, the Congress, and ultimately the Government?

Returning now to the theory of government, suppose Old Specter was THE filibuster pivot (probably true on a few issues at least). Now, in light of his left-shifted electorally induced preferences he is no longer the filibuster pivot. Who is? Again, hard to say definitively, but it’s easy to characterize qualitatively: a Senator, such as Snowe or Collins, who has preferences very close to Old Specter -- so close, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine there being any measurable impact on policy outcomes. In short, the Specter switch will matter a tiny bit at most. All it does is shift the filibuster pivot "one person" to the left, and even with an ostensible vanishing moderates problem in the Senate, there are still enough moderate Senators that there just isn't that much policy space between, say, a Old Specter and a Snowe.

My prediction in brief. We'll see plenty of gridlock -- much more than the 100-day-high pundits have prognosticated. Furthermore, if and when major legislation is passed, it will happen via major compromises that make the final product look much more like what Old Specter wanted than what Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid want.
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Footnote: In case anyone wonders what role party discipline plays in this forecast, the answer is none. The idea of Harry Reid disciplining Specter strikes me as comical on its face. I am reminded of an anecdote from a Republican Leaders Office staff meeting I attended in the early 1990s. Minority Leader Bob Dole ran the meeting. Arlen Specter had placed a hold on a bill that Dole was ready to move, given his negotiations with then Majority Leader George Mitchell.
Dole: Still stalled?
Staff: I’m afraid so, Senator. You know Specter: he’s an independent thinker.
Dole: He’s independent.

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