Snarlin’ Arlen Draws A Primary Opponent

This isn’t exactly “first with the burst” news at this point, since outlets like TPM reported this news as early as last Wednesday. But it’s the first time I’ve had a chance to weigh in on it, and there’s no doubt that it’s big news – even if it wasn’t exactly a surprise.

Joe Sestak had been making noises about potentially challenging freshly-minted “Democratic” Senator Arlen Specter almost since Specter did his also-not-so-surprising announcement. If you were reading this blog at that time, you already know how I feel about Specter’s 100% self-serving “conversion.” If not, let me sum it up: Specter is a self-serving weasel who would pimp his own children if he thought it would win him an election.

One of my largest complaints about the whole “Specter-As-Democrat” Kabuki theater was – strangely – not with Specter himself, but with the Democratic leadership in the Senate, and to a lesser degree, with the Obama administration. Both those power-bases seemed to welcome Specter with open arms, and without any conditions or seemingly even any reservations. At least none that the public was privileged to view or be informed of. For all I know, Obama and Rahm Emanuel may have held Specter over a hot fire until he threatened to be loyal when it counted.

But you’d never have known that from the public statements Specter made – and, far more problematic, the votes he cast – in the immediate wake of his team-switching. In less than a couple of weeks, while President Obama and Harry Reid and other prominent Democrats were falling all over themselves to welcome their new Democratic Senator, Specter managed to rack up an even more-Republican set of comments and votes than he usually did in any given two-week period during the time he was a Republican Senator. Specter flat-out said, in front of cameras, that he would NOT be a “loyal Democrat,” he reiterated his opposition to EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act, and he voted against Obama’s budget and several other White House-sponsored measures. And he topped it off with an apparently-unwitting on-camera assertion that the Minnesota Supreme Court should “do the right thing and seat Senator Norm Coleman” (who lost a very close race to Al Franken and has been appealing his loss ever since). With friends like these, as the old saying goes….

But now, with Joe Sestak formally announced to run in the Democratic primary against Specter in 2010, the playing field is very different – or at least it should be, if Arlen Specter has the political sense to pour pee out of a boot. Why? Well, again, my biggest complaint with the whole thing centered on the fact that the Democrats seemed oblivious to the fact that not demanding concessions of any kind from Specter meant that the brand new “D” after his name meant little. What’s the point in officially, on paper, having 60 votes if, on most contentious issues, you really don’t? That’s why Joe Sestak’s entrance into this race is such a good thing: he will do, in one fell swoop, what the Democrats either weren’t sharp enough to see needed doing, or lacked the backbone to do themselves: it will keep Arlen Specter honest.

For crying out loud, the man’s been a Republican for nearly thirty years in the Senate. Just switching the letter after his name doesn’t make him a Democrat any more than me proclaiming myself “Tsar Of All The Russias” makes that statement true. Joe Sestak is a genuine progressive with good positions on the issues. I don’t agree with him on everything, but he far more exemplifies a progressive, liberal Democratic voting record and set of beliefs and values than does Arlen Specter. And now, for the next eighteen months or so, that record will serve as a very, VERY public contrast to whatever Specter chooses to do in the Senate during the same time period.

Without Sestak, Specter could feel free to vote with (if not exactly SIT with) his old Republican colleagues on everything from EFCA to Gitmo to any number of other high-profile Democratic initiatives. But from now on, Specter will always be forced to remember, before he casts that vote, or makes that public statement, that the Democratic voters of Pennsylvania (who tend to be more liberal than the general election voters, just like in most states, and just like Republican primary voters tend to be more conservative than general election voters) will be able to look to a man with solid progressive credentials to see what HE would have done, how HE would have voted. And then those primary voters will have a chance to choose, in November of 2010, which man best represents the Democratic party in the state of Pennsylvania, and on national issues. My guess is that, after the abdication of responsibility from Harry Reid and the White House, the shadow of Sestak looming over the primaries will be the only thing which will force Specter to realize that he can’t just SAY he’s a Democrat to avoid getting his butt handed to him in a Republican primary against Pat Toomey (a far-right, Club-for-Growth guy), he’s going to have to actually ACT, SPEAK and VOTE like a Democrat if he wants to be certain to retain that seat he’s become so accustomed to sitting in since 1980.

And that alone is a good thing.