We like to think that a politician’s job is to represent her constituents. Most politicians parrot those words, but most also understand — either consciously or subconsciously — that their primary job is to further their own career. Sometimes representing constituents can be a means to that end; other times, not so much.

I’m not saying that politicians are not also driven by certain ideologies and philosophies. Those are part of the whole package. If you carefully observe what politicians really do, you will discover that they are opportunists that exploit every possible avenue to further their career. Politicians with staying power not only enjoy what they do; they are among the best political opportunists around.

As a political novice, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) took advantage of shifting party loyalties in the 70s to unseat three-term Democratic Senator Frank Moss in 1976. On the campaign trail, he would ask, “What do you call a senator that has spent three terms in Washington, DC?” He would then answer his own question, “You call him home!”

The point was to insinuate that someone that had been in the U.S. Senate for 18 years was out of touch with his constituents back home. This line was such a crowd pleaser that it was incorporated into radio and TV ads. Today as Hatch prepares to run for term number seven in 2012, he emphasizes the value of his “experience” and “tenure,” seemingly oblivious to any concerns about being out of touch with constituents.

Even the most casual political observer can see how Hatch has changed his stripes over 3½ decades. Democrats have said that among GOP senators, Hatch is “one of the most bipartisan and easy to work with.” When any politician says something of that nature about a politician from the opposing party, it means that the politician being praised pretty much shares the ideology of the opposing party or is a push over.

This ideological shift has not harmed Hatch. The last time he faced even somewhat serious competition was 1982. He continues to successfully take advantage of the conditions in which he finds himself. Although many of Hatch’s loyal voters would be shocked to find how much they differ with him on legislation he has supported, he knows that he has the resources to nip in the bud any would-be challengers from the right and can count on reliable Republican votes, as long as he doesn’t do anything like have an affair or kiss a male gay-rights activist on the lips in public.

Another example of effective opportunism is Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who has just switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party as he prepares to run for a sixth term next year. Specter has always been a moderate in a state that has both Democratic and Republican strongholds. But he is not wrong when he says that the Pennsylvania GOP has shifted right in recent years.

Straddling the middle worked well for Specter until 2004 when he faced a strong challenge in the GOP primary. To beat conservative Congressman Pat Toomey, Specter had to appear to lean right, only to have to rapidly track back left to beat his Democratic opponent in the general election.

Specter has long enjoyed a higher approval rating from his state’s Democrats than from registered Republicans. It has now become apparent that Specter would lose a primary rematch against Toomey. Rather than face certain primary defeat, Specter has decided to switch parties. These kinds of occurrences are the results of backroom deals. I suspect that Specter extracted promises from his new party of certain committee assignments and no serious primary contest.

This is political opportunism at its finest. By switching parties now, Specter will likely cruise to re-election. While Toomey might trounce Specter in a GOP primary, Specter is likely to soundly beat Toomey in a general election. He will be better funded and have more name recognition, and his centrist views will appeal to more of the state’s voters. After holding powerful roles in the GOP during the years they were in the majority, Specter will now get to be part of the Democratic powerhouse. It’s the best of both worlds for him.

Diminishing GOP
Since it is looking more likely that the Democrats will pick up the Minnesota seat currently contested by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, it seems that Specter’s shift will provide Democrats with the critical 60th vote in the Senate that will allow them to override Republican objections to passing any legislation they want. That is, at least until January 2011. Then perhaps Democrats will pick up even more senate seats, as happened in the 1934 mid-term election, giving them an even clearer mandate.

This is quite probable because Senate (and House) Republicans currently appear feckless, rudderless, and disingenuous all at the same time, and because more GOP than Democratic Senate seats will be vulnerable next year. Another problem for the GOP is that far fewer voters self identify as Republican than as Democrat. (Even more self identify as independent.) From today’s limited vantage point, the most likely outcome of the 2010 elections will be that Democrats will pick up enough seats in the Senate to be safely filibuster proof, even if a few Democrats occasionally defect.

Some conservatives are happy to see Specter go. They’d also like to see moderate (RINO) Republican Senators Snowe and Collins take a hike. The argument is that by achieving more ideological purity the party will eventually attract more voters. At the very least, a more purely conservative party would offer a starkly contrasting alternative once voters sour on Democratic excesses.

There may be some validity to this viewpoint, but it is a very long-term plan. With the GOP now achieving irrelevancy in national politics (albeit not as irrelevant as it was in 1936), it begs the question of whether there will be anything useful left by the time this supposed future point arrives. I also find it instructive that Republicans have not had as advantageous of a position as that in which Democrats now find themselves since Harding was elected in 1920, while Democrats have enjoyed such an advantage several times since then.

WSJ Editor James Taranto writes, “In the real world of politics, a small but principled minority can get things done only by forming coalitions with other factions on the basis of common interests or partial agreements of principle.” A party that is too small to leverage power has little chance of participating in that give and take. In that case, a party can gripe and moan. Or it can figure out how to actually appeal to more voters.

Regardless of party, politics involves politicians. Our Founders understood what drives politicians. They designed a system that they hoped would harness competing ambition in a way that works for the public good. That worked to a degree until men discovered that they could successfully twist the words of the Constitution to mean anything they could get the people to swallow without rebelling.

Americans would do well to drop the pretense of altruism that is tied to political office and to recognize the unbridled opportunism that is the currency of the political class. In a way, our system’s political ambition is a thing of terrible beauty, akin to that of a violent summer storm. Without proper controls, it can likewise be destructive.
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