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On Tuesday, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced that his political philosophy was now more in line with that of the Democratic Party, and that he would caucus with the Democrats instead of the Party of Lincoln.

This announcement came with huge consequences. If the as-yet-unfilled Minnesota senate seat is taken by Al Franken — as is expected — then the Democrats with have 60 seats in the upper house, meaning that by taking away the Republicans’ filibustering privileges, they will be able to get a vote on any item of legislation supported by the party.

Specter, a pro-business conservative who has been a Republican senator for nearly three decades, said that the GOP had lately moved too far to the right — too far right to include himself among its members any more. The Democrats rejoiced at the idea of adding Specter’s name to their ranks, and on Wednesday, President Barack Obama formally welcomed the senator into the party.

Rather than reflecting a shift in either personal or party ideology, Specter’s decision to cross the aisle is indicative of another important trend in national politics. Since the Obama inauguration, all meaningful political discussion in this country has taken place within the Democratic party, while the Republicans have been left to exercise their politics in unconventional, and mostly ineffective, ways.

While the Democrats have focused on things like the stimulus and the CIA torture memos, Republicans have trodden unfamiliar ground by making feeble attempts to organize and demonstrate with any effectiveness. These gestures, of which one example is the Tax Day Tea Party movement, have served to embarrass the party in the eyes of most Americans. YouTube audiences were simultaneously amused and appalled to watch Republicans confusedly yell down Obama as both a fascist and a communist, or a sleeper terrorist plant, or a New World Order shill, or what have you.

And, as Specter said, the Republican appeal has been shifting and shrinking. Rather than try to reach out to moderates, the GOP has taken seemingly conscious steps toward excluding potential members at a time when it ought to be trying to be more inclusive.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in an article in Wednesday’s New York Times that the Republicans could have increased the presence of “women in general, married women with children, Hispanics, the middle class in general, and independents” among its ranks, but instead has “de facto cede[d] them to the opposing party.”

Specter has no doubt taken notice. His Republican constituency back in Pennsylvania has grown increasingly conservative, with moderates departing for the Democrats. As a result, he would struggle to win a primary election against a right-wing opponent.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that the Democratic Party may be growing too large to be contained under a single party banner. Specter, the party’s newest member in Congress, is at the far right end of the party, and from there, the spectrum extends ever leftward. Though Specter and other moderate-to-conservative Democrats may have the same party affiliation, far more liberal, congressmen, they have little else in common, and in the coming years, we will no doubt see more disparity between the left and right flanks of the Democratic party.

So this brings up a critical, if hypothetical, question: With the Republicans continuing to shrink in both scope and importance, and Democrats doing the opposite, is it possible that the latter could split in the next few elections, with the Republican-Democrat divide being somewhere in the current middle of the Democratic Party? If the political center is located so firmly within one of the political parties, should there not be a change to account for that fact?

The answer, of course, is impossible to predict; there are simply too many maybes, and unforeseen occurrences. But we are living in a critical period of history, and similar times have seen similar political shifts.

Perhaps, years from now, we’ll look back and see Specter’s move as the first of a whole heap of straws that eventually broke the camel’s — er, elephant’s — back.

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