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The Specter of Sabotage By: Gregory Gethard
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In 1965, a 35-year-old Arlen Specter was defeated in the Democratic primary to become Philadelphia’s next District Attorney. But where others might have withdrawn in defeat from political life, Specter simply switched parties, won the GOP nomination, and pulled an upset, thus launching his political career. Yesterday, Specter, now 79 and the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, pulled another about-face, defecting to the Democrats and bringing them within one vote of a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

The timing of Specter’s latest political reincarnation was not coincidental. According to his polling data, Specter would have lost Pennsylvania’s Republican primary in 2010, and with it his 29-year career in the Senate. Specter trails primary challenger Pat Toomey by more than 20 percent in recent polls; in 2004, Toomey lost to Specter by just a handful of votes. “I am not prepared to have my 29 year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” Specter announced yesterday. Now he won’t have to. Thanks to the fact that no clear-cut Democrat had emerged from the pack to challenge for the Senate seat, Specter can simply change sides.

To account for Specter’s sudden switch, many have pointed fingers at the Republican Party and especially its conservative base. Such was the explanation offered by Maine Senator and fellow “moderate” Olympia Snowe, who claimed that Specter’s move was due to Republicans’ hostility towards its more liberal members. But a closer look shows that Specter has a history of attempting to have it both ways: changing his vote on issues when it’s politically convenient, and then managing to spin it as evidence of his “independence.”

For instance, it was only a few weeks ago that Specter attempted to frame himself as a true-conservative and the Republican Party’s last line of defense against Democratic domination. “If [Pat] Toomey is the Republican nominee, we lose the seat in the fall,” said Specter.

He’s to the right of [former Pennsylvania Senator Rick] Santorum who lost by 18 points after spending $31 million as a two-term senator. All that is standing between the Democrats and an avalanche are the 41 Republican Senators to filibuster. If he’s the nominee we lose the seat, and you have card check, and you have tax increases, and you have all of the big Obama spending programs. To win the election we need to bring back a lot of R's who became D's to vote for Obama or Clinton in the primary. We are working very hard on that.

Of course, only a few weeks earlier, the anti-big-spending Specter had voted in favor of Obama’s trillion-dollar stimulus pack, the most recent cause of Specter’s unpopularity among Pennsylvania Republicans. By contrast, Toomey, a former president of the free-market Club for Growth, has sincere credentials as an anti-tax, pro-limited government Republican.

Specter’s credentials include the active support of the AFL-CIO. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George issued glowing praise of Specter’s decision to join the Democratic Party. Since the 2008 election, Specter was seen as the deciding vote against the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure that would do away with a secret vote during unionization efforts, after pressure from Republicans and in the hopes of building up his conservative credentials against Toomey. But three years ago, Specter was the lone Republican to move the bill forward in the legislative process. And now Majority Leader Harry Reid is altering the legislation in hopes of gaining Specter’s approval.

This is an old trick. Throughout his Senate career, Specter has tried to embrace both sides of the same issue, a penchant most obvious during his contentious role on the Senate Judiciary committee. When Specter was in line to chair the committee, he was evasive about whether he would support pro-life judges nominated by President Bush. At one point, Specter reminded Bush about the prospect of a Democrat filibuster if any strident pro-life candidates appeared before his committee. Specter quickly backpedaled from this statement, going on as many TV shows as possible to remind viewers that he had voted for pro-life candidates earlier in his career.

As a personality, Specter is difficult to dislike. His candor and dry wit add a sense of levity to the sometimes stuffy world of Senate politics. Moreover, he has often done well for the state of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia. To his credit, too, he has shown a willingness to work both sides of the political aisle to find compromises on tough issues. And were his defection to the Democrats this week truly a matter of cherished principle, the move might even be considered admirable.

His contrast with Joseph Lieberman is telling. Lieberman, a lifelong Democrat, cast a vital vote against the interests of his base and lost a primary. He then ran as an independent and continued to caucus with the Democrats who tried to unseat him.

However, that will not net Specter a committee chairmanship. With Republicans in the minority, and with experts doubting their ability to retake the chamber in 2010, Specter will be away from the levers of power for years to come. His new party will acknowledge his seniority, dangling before him the opportunity to become Appropriations Committee Chairman, which Specter has said is “something I’d like to attain.”

Specter’s defection lacks both the adherence to political principle and the party loyalty. It is the backstabbing effort of a long-tenured politician desperately attempting to grab political power. And in the context of Specter’s career, it is also not surprising.

Gregory Gethard is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.

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