The prodigal 29-year senator from Pennsylvania, lost as a Republican and newly found as a Democrat, was a source of some distress for the GOP last week, as the Republicans reckoned with the loss of a seat in the Senate, and with it the probable loss of the filibuster as a weapon against the Obama legislative agenda.
That was last week. A lot goes down in seven days. In that time, the newest Democratic senator has his neighbors wondering why he moons the cars as they pass by on the street — wondering exactly what side of the aisle Arlen Specter is really on.
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For years now Arlen Specter has made a habit, if not the better part of a career, by pledging allegiance to no one but himself. Going his own way has been a hallmark of his style on Capitol Hill.
The senator, who infamously voted “not proven” in 1998, during the Clinton Senate impeachment vote — a weird sideways invocation of Scottish law that essentially just means voting “not guilty” — broke with the Republicans in 1987, over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. He pissed off his own party again in 1999, when he condemned the GOP for the relentlessly zealous pursuit of the impeachment of President Clinton, in the fallout of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Maybe for this reason, according to recent polls by Quinnipiac University, Specter has a higher approval rating among Democrats in Pennsylvania than Republicans, 62–55 respectively.
Not that he’s above angering the Democrats — the party that, until just about ten days ago, was his loyal opposition.
On April 28, President Obama was told of Specter’s pending switch to the Democrats. Specter told Obama, “I’m a loyal Democrat. I support your agenda.” Hey, everybody, welcome the prodigal!
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Well, that didn’t last long. About a week. Specter had by this time already been re-necklaced by David Broder of The Washington Post, with the title “Specter the Defector” That's what they called Specter when he flipped from Democrat to Republican back in 1965.
Then, on May 2, on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, Specter raised the, uh, spectre of a loose cannon in the Senate having rolled from one aisle to the other.
In an exchange with Specter, MTP moderator David Gregory said:
GREGORY: It was reported this week that when you met with the president, you said, “I will be a loyal democrat. I support your agenda.” Let me test that on probably one of the most important areas of his agenda, and that’s health care. Would you support health care reform that puts up a government run public plan to compete with a private plan issued by a private insurance company?
SPECTER: No. And you misquote me, David. I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat. I did not say that. And last week, after I said I was changing parties, I voted against the budget because the budget has a way to pass health care with 51 votes, which undermines a basic Senate institution to require 60 votes to impose closure on key issues. …I did not say I am a loyal Democrat.
Real loyal Democrats everywhere dropped their remotes (along with their jaws) and asked themselves, “Can this marriage be annulled?” Which assumes there was a marriage in the first place. There were some Democrats who were already skeptical of Specter’s truer motives for making this switch.
He talked a good game about making the leap across the aisle on the basis of principle and values, and Specter’s historically iconoclastic voting pattern, not always in lockstep with his own party, has happened often enough over 29 years to make that believable.
But then you drill down a little further and you hit the bedrock of the reason for Specter’s morphing from red to blue: Specter faced a primary challenge from Republican Pat Twoomey, a former Congressman and figurehead behind the Club for Growth. It was generally conceded that Specter would have lost. Rather than risk the end of his senatorial career in a loss to a primary challenger in his own party, Specter made the switcheroo of the label on the can; whether there’s a transformation of the product inside is in doubt.
"I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat," Specter said, apparently losing sight of the fact that you can be a loyal Democrat without being servile or reflexively obedient.
When The New York Times asked whether he lamented the absence of Jewish Republicans in the Senate, he said, "I sure do. There's still time for the Minnesota courts to do justice and declare Norm Coleman the winner."
It’s apparently hard for the new guy to lose his old habits.
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It may be just as hard for Pennsylvania Democrats to lose one of their old habits — like loyalty to the party and its principles. The state, which went for Obama last year, has its own iconoclastic streak. The working-class voters of the state, faced with the prospect of Twoomey (a Republican they don’t know) and the reality of Specter (a Democrat they don’t trust), could just go a different way altogether.
Enter Joe Sestak. He’s a former Navy rear admiral. He’s got a Ph.D from Harvard. He’s worked with the Joint Chiefs and the National Security Council. He’s currently a Democratic congressman in Pennsylvania’s 7th district, and the highest ranking former military officer to ever serve in Congress. And he’s considering whether or not to run against Specter in the primary next year.
Sestak is impressive on camera. He knows the talking points, has a firm command of the need for rapid-fire encapsulation of a point of view, and he doesn’t back down. He looked good on May 1 on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” muzzling the notoriously hyperactive pit bull Chris Matthews — actually finishing his answers before Matthews piled on with more.
He looked just as good, sharp and articulate the day before, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program:
Sestak looks believable; his arguments are reasoned and couched in a rhetorical style that’s accessible, at odds with Specter’s curmudgeonly flintiness. Sestak would give Specter all he could handle in the Democratic Senate primary campaign. Sestak is younger than Specter, his resume is frankly more impressive, he’s more energetic, way easier on the eyes, and he’s more of a piece with Pennsylvanians’ sense of themselves as independents living in the future tense, rather than the past.
Some in the Democratic party are already putting Specter, and his possible value to the party, in a less-than-awestruck perspective.
Democratic strategist James Carville said Specter’s shift was possibly a "major event in terms of how the Senate conducts its business," but "a relatively minor event in political history."
"[Specter] was the least reliable Republican. So he will just switch to become the least reliable Democrat," he said in a May 4 interview with The Huffington Post. "I wouldn't try to make much more out of it than the political survivor comes up with one more act in a long-running play of political survival …”
Some in the press have caught on, too. Broder of The Post has. "[M]uch as Specter's decision reflects an increasingly serious weakness in the Republican Party, there is no escaping the fact that it is also an opportunistic move by one of the most opportunistic politicians of modern times.
"The one consistency in the history of Arlen Specter has been his willingness to do whatever will best protect and advance the career of Arlen Specter."
Image credits: Specter: Public domain. Sestak: Public domain.