Specter the Defecter

****UPDATE, 5/17****If ever you wanted to know just what a prototypical example of the political windsock/weasel figure Arlen Specter is, well, look no further than this. Someone dug up an old C-Span video of Specter offering a 12-minute procedural rule (for the Senate to adopt) which would – get this – prevent sitting Senators from switching parties while in office. Why? – and why is the date (2001) significant? Because that’s the time when Jim Jeffords was abandoning the GOP to go independent (but caucus with the Democrats). Hypocrisy, thy name is Specter.

I know I’m a little late coming to the party on this one, but frankly, it’s seemed like a not-all-that-important development to me in the grand scheme of things. However, Arlen Specter’s recent defection to the Democratic party has generated more hoopla than I expected it to, in part because – I suspect – of the weird candor he displayed when holding his formal press conference announcing the change. However, it’s also stayed in the news (or at least in people’s minds who’re of a political bent) because of some of the reactions of people from various points on the political spectrum to the news, I think.

So, what am I doing? I’m running a poll! Yep, only our second poll, but feel free to stop by and sound off, either by voting or (hopefully) by adding a comment, especially if you think that none of the choices on the poll (in the right-hand column) accurately represent your feelings about Specter’s actions, and how he’s described them, and how others have reacted. Anyone who wants to is also welcome to join me after the fold here, for a few of my own thoughts about recent political undercurrents and precedents which bear on (or at least are interesting to consider in light of) the whole “Specter issue.”

Recent Precedents

Jim Jeffords:

The last high-profile defection from one party to another (that I can recall) was Jim Jeffords’ abandonment of the GOP in 2001. But Jeffords didn’t become a Democrat, he became an independent (though one who caucused with the Democrats, depriving the Republicans temporarily of their already razor-thin majority in the Senate). Jeffords’ abandonment of the GOP meant they could no longer enforce that famous Republican “party discipline” which in recent years has boiled down in practice to little more than a rubber stamp for whatever the party leaders (party chairs, the President, etc.) want to try to ram through. And that, in turn, meant – for a time – that they knew they couldn’t get the most controversial or extreme items on their wish list, despite holding both houses of Congress.

Joe Lieberman:

More recently, in 2006, Joe Lieberman also “switched,” though here again, his re-branding himself as an “independent Democrat” (instead of an actual member of the Democratic party) had to do with the fact that Lieberman was in fact defeated in the Democratic primary in 2006 by Ned Lamont, a cable-TV magnate who ran in the Democratic primary with virtually no support from the Democratic party establishment, the DSCC, Senate Democrats, or anyone else except some ragtag liberal bloggers like FireDogLake and Daily Kos.

As that primary season wore on, and Lamont transformed himself steadily from a joke-y also-ran (in Lieberman’s eyes) into a quite-credible threat, and finally at the very end into the front runner (and eventual winner), Lieberman decided to hedge his bets based upon the particulars of Connecticut election law. He began semi-surreptitiously gathering signatures to place himself on the ballot as an independent instead of a Democrat (which is the only other way one can get on the ballot if one is not the winner of a party’s primary election). As soon as the results came back showing a close but decisive victory for Lamont in Connecticut’s primary, Lieberman instantly filed the signatures he’d already collected, qualifying to run as an independent.

About the same time, the Connecticut and national GOP realized two things. First, they realized that they had no real chance at electing the sort of hard-right Republican that they’d prefer (and can get elected in places like South Carolina, Texas and Utah).Connecticut’s simply too “blue” a state, and even the Republicans up there are more Olympia Snowe than Trent Lott. If they wanted to put an (R) in that seat (or virtually any other in New England), they’d have to pick up a good chunk of independent voters, and that meant settling for a candidate who wasn’t in the Tom DeLay or Jeff Sessions or Newt Gingrich mold. They also realized that in the lead-up to the Iraq war and on virtually every other “national security” issue, Lieberman had been a Republican already in all but name, being a more reliable vote for President Bush’s military agenda than even Senators who actually did have the (R) after their name (Lincoln Chaffee comes to mind here).

So the national GOP made a decision to not run a general election candidate against Lieberman. Oh, there was a Republican registered for the race, a man named Alan Schlesinger. But Schlesinger came already weighted down with personal baggage which, while not illegal, would quite likely have torpedoed his campaign anyway. So the NRSC – already pleased enough with Lieberman – informed Schlesinger that they would not be spending any money on his campaign, making him into an instant also-ran. And as a result, the Democrats who had helped Lamont beat Lieberman in the primary stayed loyal, and Lamont picked up a good chunk of the formerly-Lieberman-voting Democrats who were outraged that he’d abandon his party and not abide by their decision so easily. But conservative-minded independent voters who didn’t have a dog in the Democratic primary fight found the choice between the probably-weaselly, but definitely experienced and recognizable Lieberman, and the ethically-challenged Schlesinger a no-brainer. And with the RNC choosing deliberately not to mount a campaign on Schlesinger’s behalf, even many Republicans wound up voting for Lieberman. In the end, Schlesinger, the registered, official candidate for the GOP, wound up getting only 9.6% of the vote, while Lieberman pulled down 49% of the total vote to Ned Lamont’s 39%, despite netting only 33% of the Democratic votes in the general election. It was enough to return Lieberman to the Senate, though he couldn’t officially call himself a Democrat any more, since he’d lost that primary and was thus no longer officially a Democrat.

Lieberman’s new (and hastily-formed) party, under which he ran in the general election, using those signatures he’d gathered during the primary, was called, ironically, the “Connecticut for Lieberman” party. I say “ironically,” because the name appears to be inverted: many politicians have referred to themselves or campaigned as “(politician’s name) for (state, district, city’s name)” – it’s as old as the hills for a politician to say “Smith for Delaware” or what have you. That slogan indicates that the politician is trying to suggest he or she has the state’s interests at heart (however transparently false that may be in reality); that he or she is thinking first and foremost of the citizens whom the office he or she is seeking represents.

By choosing the inverse formulation – not “Lieberman for Connecticut,” but “Connecticut for Lieberman,” I’m sure Joe Lieberman and his strategists were trying to sound as if his losing in the Democratic primary and then immediately abandoning his party’s verdict to run as an independent was a grassroots groundswell of popular, regular-guy Connecticut sentiment; of people from all walks of life in the state (“Connecticut”) coming together spontaneously to support (“for”) ol’ Joe (“Lieberman”). I’ll even bet it sounded good in the “branding” strategy sessions they must have had. But apparently no one stopped them and reminded them that it was the exact inverse of the traditional politician’s formulation, and in fact sounded not so much like a bunch of Nutmeggers for their favorite guy, but much more like a creepily autocratic, almost aristocratic notion that Lieberman considered himself so important that in his view, being Senator meant that the voters and citizens of the state were for him, not that he was for the people of his state. Unintended, I’m sure…but I know I’m not the only one who got that inference when we first heard of what Lieberman had chosen to call his new party.

Recent Political Undercurrents & Specter

Arlen Specter is no fool. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania, and is also a graduate of Yale Law school. While Specter may never have been among the very best litigators in the country, he’s certainly plenty smarter than average. And he’s been in politics a long, LONG time. I can remember hearing about him in the 1970s, if you can believe that, and I certainly remember his grand entrance to the Senate as part of the “Reagan Revolution.” Anyone who thinks his moves are ill-considered or based in sheer stupidity doesn’t know Specter well, and also is underestimating him. I’ve never been a fan of his, but I respect his intelligence. The path he’s taken to high office is littered with the burning husks of the candidacies of opponents who made the mistake of underestimating Specter’s political canniness and his intelligence.

That said, the reason I’ve never been a fan is that Specter has always struck me as the quintessential opportunist, politically. Perhaps “strong political skill” is actually synonymous with “quintessential opportunism,” perhaps they are merely two different ways of describing the same set of traits and operating principles. I’m enough of an idealist to hope like hell that’s NOT the case, but enough of a realist to suspect that it might be, at least in some cases. Put it this way: if ever there were a case in which that were true, surely the case of Arlen Specter would be among them. He began his career back in the dark ages as a Democrat. That’s not so unusual; most of the country was Democrats when Specter was first noticed on the political stage. The ’20s had given us Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, and only the towering presence of FDR helped get the country out of it (not to mention through the worst war in history, arguably). FDR’s presence and influence on the political mood of the country lingered long after the man himself had passed on. And it was into this environment that Arlen Specter found himself coming of age.

But even from the beginning, Specter didn’t seem like a good fit for the Democratic party. He was recruited by Gerald Ford to work on the Warren Commission’s report on the Kennedy assassination, and it was Specter himself who was the principal author of the famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view) “single-bullet theory,” which said that all of the wounds sustained by both President Kennedy and John Connally were inflicted by a single bullet. In 1965, when the country was still solidly Democratic, but the seeds of modern conservatism had already been sown with Barry Goldwater’s crushing loss to LBJ in 1964, Specter ran for District Attorney as a Democrat…in the Republican primary. If that sounds odd to you now, it was no less odd-seeming back then, and it was an indicator of things to come. Not long after his victory, Specter switched his party affiliation to Republican, making last month’s defection not the first time in Specter’s career that he had switched from one of the two major political parties to the other while in office. Specter’s career goes on from there, but my goal here isn’t to give a comprehensive biography of Specter, merely to point out some interesting history and character traits which can be observed from certain parts of his past. All of it bears on his recent decision to re-switch parties, from Republican back to Democratic.

What also bears a great deal on Specter’s decision is the recent fortunes and character of the Republican party itself. In his press conference last week, Specter said the following in regard to why he chose to switch parties:

As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy the Democratic Party. When the stimulus package came up for a vote, I felt that it was indispensable to vote aye in order to avoid the possibility of a 1929-type depression. In the course of the last several months since the stimulus vote, I have traveled the state and surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls, observed other public opinion polls and have found that the prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak.

I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate — not prepared to have that record decided by that jury, the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.

Ouch. Republicans were understandably seething: this was the sort of straight-talk John McCain only pretends to offer people most of the time, and it was leveled directly at the Limbaugh-led heart of the modern Republican party. Put bluntly: the truth hurts. Again, it’s not my intention to dive into a detailed analysis of what I think has happened to the Republican party since the Goldwater era. There are whole books by writers much better (and better-researched) than I, a couple such would be Rick Perlstein’s powerhouse duo of Before The Storm and Nixonland, with perhaps Will Bunch’s Tear Down This Myth to round out the picture into the Reagan years. Suffice it to say for my purposes here that it’s no mystery nor accident that Rush Limbaugh is being discussed as the true “face” and leader of the Republican party today. Though there are more-spiteful and hate-filled figures on the right today (the recently banned-in-England Michael Savage comes to mind here), none of Limbaugh’s ilk are as prominent, and none have been at it as long as he. The Hannitys, Coulters, Savages and many if not most of the current crop of conservative/GOP media figures are all, to varying degrees, Children Of A Lesser Rush. All owe far more to him than they do to, say, Edmund Burke or even William F. Buckley. After the deliberate adoption by the Republican party of the “Southern Strategy” in the late ’60s and ’70s, it was perhaps nearly-inevitable that the sort of disgruntled, angry curmudgeon of which Limbaugh is the archetype would arise as the new face of not just movement conservatism, but of the GOP itself. Match that with an ethically-challenged “win-at-all-costs” campaign strategy from the likes of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for where the Republican party finds itself today.

That’s why I say “the truth hurts” in regard to Specter’s comments above: because it is accurate. The base of the Republican party has, over the past thirty years or so, become increasingly radicalized, feeding off what used to be confined to the fringes of the party. All parties have always had their fringe elements, and certainly Democrats and the left in general are no exception to this rule. But what’s unprecedented in modern history is the degree to which those fringe elements have either been invited in to the mainstream of a major national party, or have simply launched an ideological insurgency upon it. Whatever combination of those means applies, the end result is that what used to be restricted to hush-hush sessions amongst the John Birch society, or under cover of clandestine organizations like the Klan, is now smack in the center of the Republican party. And the result, as Specter observed, has been a skewing of the entire American political spectrum. The lens through which we view what is mainstream, odd, fringe, extreme, commonplace, moderate – all these things have become more difficult to discern and slanted rightwards due to the willingness of the GOP to place these former extremists (or at least their ideas, if not the actual people themselves) at the center of their party.

And, for a time, it worked for them. The gutterball tactics and wedge issues of strategists like Atwater and Rove, combined with the ever-growing bile on AM talk radio, and the sort of bloated cockiness of the Democratic party which comes from nearly forty years of uninterrupted control of the levers of power all combined to rack up what appeared like a sudden – and stunning, initially – series of electoral victories for the Republicans. First Reagan came to power, informing us in that patriarchial-yet-avuncular style of his that “government IS the problem,” as well as that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” a phrase later co-opted by George W. Bush, when he came out with his even-more-famous “Axis Of Evil” formulation in the state of the union address in 2003. Reagan was followed by Bush pêre, and then by a setback with Clinton (whose main political genius, arguably, was to run Reagan’s policies (basically), but as a Democrat), but re-solidified with the Gingrich revolution and the Contract with America. As late as 2004, Karl Rove was publicly boasting about creating a “permanent Republican majority,” despite how either tragic or laughable (either way: unlikely) such a pronouncement sounds now.

So when Arlen Specter gets up and pokes the Republican party right between the eyes like he did with the opening couple of paragraphs of his press conference last week, the GOP leadership feels the sting. Some reacted with sarcasm, others with pure rage, but only a few with the sort of genuine thoughtfulness that is always a prerequisite for any lasting change borne of real soul-searching. Those are the (few) guys to watch; the Republicans who’ve reacted to the back-to-back repudiations at the ballot box and the drubbing of their party identification numbers with a genuine attempt to understand what’s causing it, and how they might change in reaction to it. Oh, I don’t think many (if any) of them have “seen the error of their ways” in any religious-conversion sense of the word. Not at all. More like: “realized there’s a problem, and are trying to figure out what steps they need to take to overcome it” is a more-accurate picture of what they’re doing. But they’re the ones to watch. The Republicans (national figures or merely voters) who are content to continue following the Limbaugh-led lemming Conga line over the cliff of extremism and onto the rocks of political irrelevance below, where lie the bleached bones of the Whig Party, have no more hope of truly “rescuing” the GOP or restoring it to its recent glory than does the proverbial camel have of passing through the eye of a needle.

The important thing in all this, though, is that I don’t think Arlen Specter is one of these few “bright lights” or thoughtful people in the GOP. Oh, make no mistake: Specter isn’t a company man the way Limbaugh likes ’em (and insists they be, lest they suffer his wrath). Specter is famously cantankerous and unreliable for nearly everyone, and that – sadly – often seems to include the people whom he supposedly represents, the citizens of Pennsylvania. But Specter’s decision seems – to me – to be exactly what he said it was: a move made out of political expediency. Specter concluded, from internal polling, that he had no chance after having voted for the stimulus package recently, of winning a primary contest as a Republican. Because the hard-core base of party activists are the ones who turn out in disproportionate numbers in primary elections, they are the people who decide whom the party sends up against the other party in the general election. And because of the aforementioned “ideological cleansing” or “purity tests for true conservatism” which have been performed with increasing regularity and harshness by the Limbaugh contingent in recent years, it means that almost nowhere in America will a genuinely moderate Republican stand a chance against a serious right-wing loonball, unless the moderate is both a) much better financed and b) probably an incumbent. Republicans like losing seats to Democrats even less – though only barely – than they do to “moderate” members of their own party, and they will vote for incumbents in primaries often because they’re the best-known candidate and because the voters judge them a shoo-in against the challenging Democrat.

But Specter crossed the line: he violated one of the base’s canons by voting for the hated stimulus package. Never mind the irony that for eight years, when they enjoyed nearly unfettered access to the levers of power, Republicans (both the elected officials and the voters themselves) uttered nary a peep of discontent – and certainly never voted in any significant way – against the enormous spending and expansions of government of the Bush administration. As long as the spending and the bureaucracy were for things like making sure armies of Terry Schiavos were potentially kept alive despite the wishes of their family members who had power of attorney for them, Republicans were fine with it. The game in those years was “get everything WE want,” and, to a lesser degree, “stick it to the Democrats.” Well…as the Republicans themselves liked to smirkingly say not too many years ago – “elections have consequences.” And those consequences are not ONLY that they do not get to retain as much power, but ALSO that their previous records will be taken into account when considering their current positions.

For example, it is currently an article of faith among nearly all Republicans that the reason they lost their way (one of the major reasons, anyway) was that their leadership (and by this, they primarily mean: Bush, though he’s still very well-loved) “lost touch with their conservative principles.” It’s a return to their slightly-dusty opposition-party playbook of old: bash the Democrats as big-spending liberals whose only goal is to grow government for its own sake. Never mind that this argument was never true: no one wants to grow government simply to grow government. But now, Republicans have a much bigger and harder-to-solve problem in getting that message across: no one believes them because of their actions (or, more commonly, their INaction) during the Bush years (and, to a lesser extent, the Reagan years). Since the end of the New Deal, the largest-spending (and virtually all of it deficit spending) Presidents on record have been the Republicans: Reagan, Bush (to a lesser degree), and George W. Bush. And, through it all, Republicans raised very few objections, as long as they retained access to the levers of power. It seemed that as long as the programs the spending was being done on were things they LIKED, all was well. And itn’s only when the Democrats regain power that Republicans all-of-a-sudden rediscover their “fiscal conservative” roots.

Unfortunately for them, people tend to remember. That’s why the old lines and tricks aren’t working, and why only a fifth (21%) of the country’s voters currently identifies themselves as Republican.

Arlen Specter knows this; he said as much in his press conference. Yet since that time, he’s voted against Obama’s budget, he’s said he will continue to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, he’s indicated opposition to President Obama’s nomination for head of OLC, Dawn Johnsen, and he slipped up on national TV and said it was time for the Minnesota Supreme Court to “do the right thing and seat Norm Coleman” (the Republican who has trailed Al Franken in that still-ongoing Senate contest from last fall in Minnesota. Woof. The old line “with friends like these….” comes to mind, when looking at Specter’s post-conversion actions and listening to his statements. Trouble is: I believe him. With the exception of the Coleman comment, I genuinely think Arlen Specter intends to oppose all the Democratic positions he has said he will oppose. And that’s why I truly do not understand the Senate Democratic leadership’s apparently wholesale embrace of Specter.

Think about it: Specter himself believed strongly enough that he was going to lose the Republican primary in 2010 that he was willing to risk the wrath of his party and switch sides. My own limited research makes me agree with him: I think he had no chance. The man who would have been challenging him (and now appears to be the heavy favorite unopposed) is a man named Pat Toomey who helped found the Club for Growth, one of the most conservative groups in the nation. Though he may appeal to the party faithful who tend to vote in primaries, he is far, FAR to the right of the average Pennsylvania voter. This would have made (and still might make) that seat an easy win for a genuine Democrat — say, former admiral Joe Sestak, already a congressman. He was (and is) giving serious consideration to running for Specter’s seat. And if, as both Specter and I believe strongly, Specter would have lost the primary to Toomey, making it a Toomey vs. Sestak race in Pennsylvania, I think the Democrats’ chances would have been very good indeed to get a REAL Democrat in there, instead of what we now have as a result of Specter’s defection: a man who’s notoriously cantankerous, has been a Republican for the past thirty years, and – by his own admission – would not have changed were it not a political necessity to avoid a primary defeat. Tell me again how that’s a victory for Democrats?

I admit, I was – like a lot of other people who’ve hated the divisiveness, mismanagement and bile of the Bush years – initially thrilled when I heard Specter had defected. If nothing else, it was fun to watch the public anguish of prominent Republicans who worried about a “sixty-vote filibuster-proof supermajority” for Democrats in the Senate. But 60 Senators doesn’t always mean 60 votes. In fact, as Specter has gone out of his way over the last week to make sure we all understand, it won’t even mean that most of the time…and particularly on pivotal issues like Employee Free Choice and probably on health care, as well. Senator-elect Franken will in all likelihood be seated….eventually….and his voice will be a welcome one indeed in the Senate. But it’s my firm opinion that Joe Sestak’s would be much more reliable – and, to me, much more welcome – than will be Specter the Defecter’s voice and (unreliable) vote.

I don’t want a coterie of yes-men who will rubber-stamp anything the President proposes. As I’ve just demonstrated, that’s a major part of what’s bedeviling the GOP right now: rubber-stamping Bush and not raising any objections. But I would like someone who I considered a genuine progressive, and I think that getting someone like Sestak, who as excellent credentials, into that seat would have been one of the easiest pickup opportunities of all in 2010. Now? Who knows. But if Harry Reid and the rest of the Senate Democrats don’t stop acting like the Specter defection is unexpected manna from heaven – because it most certainly is NOT – Sestak will not stand a chance against Specter in the primary. The voters of Pennsylvania know Arlen Specter well. They may not like everything about him, but with the power of a national party organization of Democrats behind him, Sestak will go from a near shoo-in (in my opinion) to a longshot in the primary. And that would be a true shame.

Frankly, I think that what Reid, et. al. should be doing is taking ol’ Snarlin’ Arlen aside into a back room somewhere and telling him, off the record and in no uncertain terms, that while they’re happy enough to have him, and they certainly can’t stop him from changing his own voter registration card from (R) to (D), there’s more to getting a leopard to truly change his spots than just that. They should tell Specter that full support of the Democratic establishment in 2010 for Specter’s bid to defeat Pat Toomey and retain his seat will hinge on how much Specter ACTS LIKE A Democrat in the months between now and then. If he winds up being literally nothing more than a Republican who changed a letter after his name because there was no other choice, then Specter will have proven himself not to be a Democrat in any recognizable sense of the word, and therefore undeserving of the support of the state or national party apparatus. I can call myself a “nuclear submarine” — but that doesn’t actually MAKE me one. Specter needs to show that his conversion is more than skin-deep, and motivated by more than mere self-interest. Otherwise, the Democrats should primary his shriveled butt, hard.

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