When Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter left the Republican Party one year ago last week, he was rather blunt about his motivations. He was losing in the polls, he explained, and he did not want to be judged by Republican primary voters alone. He figured he’d have a better chance running for re-election this year as a Democrat.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, acting from identical motives, felt no need to be so candid about them: “My decision to run for the United States Senate as a candidate without party affiliation in many ways says more about our nation and our state than it does about me.”
So he made his state and our nation whole again by announcing that he will run as an independent candidate. He begins with a slight lead in a three-way race between himself, Republican Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek.
In switching parties, Crist aspires to two traditions, one long and one short. The long tradition reaches back more than 2,400 years to Alcibiades, the flamboyant and talented general who switched sides between Athens, Sparta, Persia and Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
By making too many enemies in Athens, then impregnating the king’s wife in Sparta, Alcibiades ensured that he would never have a stable home. He was finally assassinated, but only after achieving great fame for himself and a place in Plato’s dialogues.
Crist probably won’t achieve those things. He’s more likely to go down in history as part of a shorter tradition, that of the Republican sore loser.
Unlike Alcibiades, this character doesn’t have the excuse of being purged from or forced into anything. The GOP sore loser, almost always a moderate, either suffers defeat or senses its inevitability. He responds by switching sides and lashing out at the very people who got him elected in the first place.
Former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland represented the Eastern Shore until he lost his 2008 primary to a conservative. Gilchrest responded like the good sport he is: He endorsed the Democrat in the November election, who went on to win the seat by one point.
Former Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan, a moderate, won a six-way primary over a divided conservative field in 2004.
When he lost his primary to a conservative in 2006, he was steamed — so steamed, in fact, that he took revenge on the victor in 2008 by endorsing his Democratic opponent, who won by three points.
As for Specter, he did not have to be defeated to make his party switch. He saw defeat coming in opinion polls for the Republican primary.
Within days of leaving the Republican Party, he was already voting and behaving like a partisan Democrat. Anything to save his own political skin — except we still don’t know whether he’s actually saved it.
Specter will face Democratic voters May 18 in what has become an increasingly close contest for the Democratic nomination. As a general-election candidate, he’s now a double-digit underdog. Schwarz and Gilchrest are out of politics, but the Democrats they endorsed in 2008 are both now trailing in the polls.
Of all four, Crist has the greatest chance of success. Can he pull it off and become a modern-day Alcibiades? Perhaps. The first Rasmussen poll after his party switch shows him ahead by four points.
But unless he can hold that margin through November, the voters may well tell him: “No, this is not about our nation, our state or us. It’s about you.”
Columnist David Freddoso is The Washington Examiner’s online opinion editor.