Pundits have been feverishly speculating about what Barack Obama's most important accomplishment is in the past 100 days. I say it came today. Senator Arlen Specter is switching from the Republican to the Democratic party. The specter of Specter as a Democrat will enrage Republicans and should come as big relief to Democrats.
With 60 votes in the Senate, Obama won't be stymied by a rump Republican minority. Give credit to Specter, who behaved ignobly during the Clarence Thomas hearings, for facing reality. His move isn't opportunism but a concession to reality. Just as Democrats used to say that they hadn't left the party but it had left them, so reasonable Republicans can no longer remain a part of an ossified party that continues to lurch toward the right. Specter faced a primary challenge from the reactionary right in Pennsylvania. As a Democrat, he should win reelection handily.
Specter's move was prefigured by his opposition to the Bush administration's aggrandizement of power. In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Specter has a lengthy and perspicuous essay titled "The Need to Roll Back Presidential Power Grabs." In it, Specter notes that he worries that Obama will rely on signing statements and on a "state secrets" privilege to stymie lawsuits "challenging controversial policies like warrantless wiretapping." But as a Democrat, he will likely have more influence in pushing legislation that would, in his words, allow "Congress and the courts to reassert themselves in the system of checks and balances."
For now, Obama has won a major battle without firing a shot. The blunt fact is that President Obama isn't simply rebuilding America. Along the way, he's destroying the Republican party that has existed for the past several decades. Perhaps the GOP will eventually recover in some new, more moderate incarnation. But this will be remembered as a turning point in the historic Obama presidency. Who will defect in the next 100 days?