Foreign Policy: Arlen Specter's Decision Is Bad News For U.S. Foreign Policy

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Obama and Specter
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Senator Specter's decision to switch party affiliation is an unfortunate one, not just for the Republican Party but also for American foreign policy. His decision is perfectly understandable in terms of his own self-interest. He is facing a bruising primary challenge from his right flank. Even if he won that battle, he would probably be weakened and thus easier pickings in the general election. This is probably his best shot at retaining his seat.

I expect he secured some sort of promise from Obama not to support a Democratic primary challenge. One can complain about the unseemliness and hypocrisy of Specter praising checks and balances and promising not to switch parties one month and doing just that a few weeks later, but Specter hardly corners the market on such hypocrisy.

I will leave it for others to blog on the implications for the Republican party, which seem to range from bleak to dismal. I am more concerned by the ways this undermines the checks and balances system by giving Democrats a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, assuming that Al Franken finally gets seated. If Democrats stay united on an issue, there is not much Republicans can do but shout and pound the proverbial table.

The Framers of the Constitution worried about this sort of concentration of power, and historically the American public has shared the concern, tending to balance control by one party of one branch or chamber by giving control of another branch or chamber to the other party. That may happen again in 2010, though the Republicans don't look to be in a position to gain much at this stage.

The Framers worried about the corruption and arrogance of power, of ambition that is not checked by other ambition. For the foreseeable future, the only countervailing ambition that matters much is the (admittedly supreme) ambition of other powerful players within the Democratic party, especially Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid. They will have ample incentives to thwart Obama on branch prerogatives, but since both operate on the leftward fringe of Obama in policy terms, their impact is likely to skew Obama further away from the center rather than towards more moderate policies (which is the traditional desiderata of the checks and balances system). This also greatly weakens the policy oversight and alternative policy incubator and promoter-of-intelligent-debate functions of Congress — functions that should, in theory, contribute to better foreign policy.

Alas, this has not been Congress' forte for quite some time. On most of the issues I worked on, the quality of the debate within the administration was significantly higher than the quality of the debate with Congress. The inter-branch/cross-party debate was louder, but it tended to be the all-heat/no-light kind of argument, with Congress finding ways to grandstand without substantively engaging the issue. For instance, compare President Bush's national security strategy with the official congressional Democratic response. Even the Democrats' own experts privately told me they were embarrassed by this comparison.

Or compare the much-criticized National Strategy for Victory in Iraq with the most prominent congressional Democratic alternative from Rep. John Murtha. While reporters never said this in print, they privately told me they considered Murtha's "plan" to be ridiculous, far less candid and serious than the administration's own strategy.

Partisans might say this is a reflection of the quality of foreign policy perspective in the two parties, but I suspect it has more to do with the difficulty of mounting a coherent position from the minority bench. That is the position Republicans now find themselves in. For the sake of the country, I hope they offer a more coherent and intelligent foreign policy critique than the examples I listed above. The Obama team may prefer having untrammeled power, but the Framers thought the country would get better policies if the debate is more robust and of higher quality.

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