Arlen, You Let Me Down

Meghan McCain writes that she was disappointed in Arlen Specter‘s decision to bolt from the GOP. No matter what some Republicans say, he’s exactly what the party needs.

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Meghan McCain writes that she was disappointed in Arlen Specter’s decision to bolt from the GOP. No matter what some Republicans say, he’s exactly what the party needs.

The frenzy over Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to switch parties has only just begun. As usual whenever there is major political news, my email inbox explodes with reader reactions. One in particular stood out: “You are not a new face for the Republican Party. You are the problem with the Republican Party. If you'd like to be a feel-good liberal, there's a party for you. Do like Specter and stop wrecking the GOP. Your 15 minutes are about up.” (This was from Shawn in Oceanside, California.)

This was an opportunity for Specter to hold his ground and set an example for progressive-minded Republicans. Instead, he turned his back.

It’s one thing to say that about me, but it’s another to attack Sen. Specter—the longest-serving U.S. senator from Pennsylvania (he was first elected in 1980), and a man who has stood for some of the best elements of the Republican Party for decades. Granted, he has at times been a very vocal critic of conservative leaders and policies. But Specter has never shied away from putting the needs of his constituents first, nor has he ever been deterred from ruffling the feathers of some of the GOP's elite in order to do so.

For the record, less than 20 percent of my emails are negative in nature. But messages like the one I received from Shawn illustrate why Sen. Specter may have felt there was no more room for him in today's Republican Party. I certainly know the feeling. Being in the spotlight these last few months has been enlightening in so many ways. And I regularly hear from thousands of amazingly encouraging supporters, from 40-year-old mothers to 79-year-old retired Marine Corps veterans. But then there are the Shawns of the world. I don’t blame him personally for his opinion. It’s the unfortunate, still-unraveling mess left in the wake of “strategic” decisions made by conservative leaders over the last decade.

Which brings me back to the Specter incident, how it illustrates what’s wrong with the party, and why I so strongly believe that what people like me are saying matters.

Let me be clear: I have a lot of respect for Sen. Specter. But I also can't help but feel like he's let us down. I'm sure this was a long, hard decision. The polls were looking very bleak in his primary contest. His probable opponent was nearly 20 points ahead in many polls. And I understand how he’s been made to feel like an outcast by a small, vocal group. Still, this was an opportunity for Specter to hold his ground and set an example for progressive-minded Republicans trying to overcome one of their biggest obstacles: winning the party primaries.

Of course, this speaks to much larger problem in the GOP. We need to attract more centrist and progressive conservative voters at the primary level, so that level-headed candidates stand a chance. We need courageous Republicans more than ever. And this week, Sen. Specter turned his back. But he wasn’t the only one.

Shortly after the senator's announcement, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele released the following statement:

"Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not. Let’s be honest—Senator Specter didn’t leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record. Republicans look forward to beating Sen. Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don’t do it first."

At its core, there is not much different about what the chairman said and what I’ve written here. Specter's decision was most likely motivated by political reasons. But that's where the similarities end. What's left is the same, tired rhetoric conservatives simply cannot seem to get past. Even someone like Mr. Steele—who was elected to be a more inclusive, open voice for Republicans—can’t escape it.

His statement speaks volumes about the kind of party the GOP has become. Sen. Specter's voting record may not please many Republicans all the time. But you can’t avoid the fact that he's been re-elected four times—his votes clearly mean something to the people of Pennsylvania. Steele also ignored the real opportunity Specter's decision presented. The chairman could have dealt with the real issues plaguing the GOP, perhaps by saying something like this:

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"It is unfortunate Senator Specter has decided to leave the Republican Party he has called home for decades. It's also unfortunate that he most likely did so for political purposes. But we will use this as an opportunity to acknowledge today's GOP has its work cut out for it. We clearly need to work on defining who we are, not just by our words, but by our actions. This is how we will reverse the shrinking of our ranks and invite old and new members to the table so that Republicans’ core goals can help lead America once again."

I guess that type of statement would have been too "off-message" for the RNC to release. It's too bad, because the party needs brave, articulate leaders who can balance a strong stance for core Republican beliefs with an inclusive message aimed at the electorate. Both Specter and Steele failed this week: One didn't stand up and fight for the soul of this party, and the other shrank to appeal to one of its most destructive characteristics.

A recent survey suggests less then 25 percent of Americans are willing to label themselves as a Republican. What kind of message do we send by continuing to applaud the exodus of people like Arlen Specter or calling for the departure of 24-year-old women like myself? I, for one, hope we get back to solving problems. I promise to do my part by continuing the discussion both in funny and serious ways. I hope you all do, too. Even those 20 percent of readers who think I'm a Democrat. I'm sorry to disappoint you, I'm still a Republican.

Meghan McCain is originally from Phoenix. She graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She previously wrote for Newsweek magazine and created the Web site