Yesterday's news was reported as either a victory for the President or a welcome purging for Republicans.
What it actually did was reveal the creation of a new party, a Third Force in American politics that has always existed, but whose identity is being made increasingly explicit as the two parties separate ideologically.
I call it the Specterman Party, for its two titular leaders in the Senate, Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman.
There have always been moderates, in every party. Their views are fungible. It is sometimes said their views are for sale. Moderates follow their own consciences, either seeking consensus or standing as the last holdouts on close issues, seeking concessions from both sides before making their choice.
This is both a weak and powerful position. Weak, because like anyone who stands in the middle of a road they're subjected to being hit by traffic from both sides. Powerful, because as the last to choose, the least reliable allies, they can extract the highest price for their support.
There are Spectermen (and women) in both parties. Among nominal Republicans they include the Governors of Florida and California, the Mayor of New York, the two gentleladies from Maine. Among nominal Democrats they include the aforementioned Lieberman, the midwestern Senators Bayh of Indiana and Nelson of Nebraska, and just about any elected Democrat from south of the Mason-Dixon line.
In the United Kingdom this third force is its own party, the Liberal Democrats, formed in 1981 by a union of the old Liberals and Social Democrats. The LDP has a great popular appeal, but almost no power, since its members are largely dispersed and thus it seldom breaks through in that country's first-past-the-post voting system.
In the United States a true Third Party can't happen, and Spectermen (or women) are found on both sides of the fence, occassionally jumping (like Specter himself) like sheep finding a better pasture.
Spectermen are the official opposition in most of the country.
In the Northeast, nearly all Republicans are Spectermen. In the South, Democrats are nearly all Spectermen. Elsewhere it depends on the circumstances. Anywhere a strong majority can be found for either party, you'll see Spectermen leaning against it, winning the opposition party's primaries because they're more "electable" than real members of that party might otherwise be.
The Obama Administration represents an alliance between Democrats and the Spectermen, but it is an uneasy alliance. Plenty of Democrats dislike having Specter in their midst as much as conservative Republicans hated having him among them just the other day. If you want to know whether a nominal Democrat is a true D or Specterman, just say the words Joe Lieberman and await their reaction.
Yet the Spectermen are a party on the march. They may well win New Jersey later this year. They're favorites to take over Connecticut, ousting Democratic stalwart Chris Dodd. They have high hopes throughout the South, wherever Republicans are in danger of overplaying their hand. They won an additional Congressional seat last year in Alabama, and another in Mississippi. (That's Specterman Travis Childers of Mississippi's 1st CD to the right.) They have their target on the back of Kentucky's Jim Bunning, and they are even on the march in Texas.
The political genius of Barack Obama lies in how he has united Democrats with Spectermen in furtherance of his agenda, which navigates between the two movements. It is bipartisan partisanship. It drives Republicans crazy.
The question for our future is whether that crazy might just turn Republicans into Whigs. And it might. If Spectermen are able to break through in the South in 2010 analysts will call it a true political realignment, another Era of Good Feeling. It will, in fact, be the creation of a new two-party system, Democrats on one side of the aisle, Spectermen on the other, with the Republicans relegated to the role Parti Quebeqois plays in Canada, until they embrace their inner Specter.