(In)Specter Maggot

The changing faces of Pennsylvania’s senior senator.

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 20, 2009

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What does Arlen Specter stand for, anyway?

Photo by iwasaround, via Flickr

Who is Arlen Specter? Six months after he left the Republican Party, we still don’t know the answer to that question. To be sure, our state’s senior senator sure looks like a progressive Pennsylvania Democrat these days. He’s joined his colleagues—Bob Casey, Joe Sestak, Chaka Fattah, Bob Brady and even blue dog Patrick Murphy—in supporting a “public option” that is the best route to meaningful health reform that expands coverage and lowers costs. This is good news, as well as being a political necessity: Off-year elections are on the horizon, and while they tend to have historically low participation, it’s worse when no one has anything to show the voters. Specter doesn’t want to face Democratic voters empty-handed next year.

The numbers even show Specter to be a reliable vote for Democrats. Polling blogger Nate Silver notes that Specter has voted with Dems 97 percent of the time since Sestak decided to challenge him in the party primary. Before that, though, Specter voted with Democrats only 44 percent of the time.

“The real question,” Silver asks, “is how Specter will behave if and when he wins the primary challenge, and the pressure from the left is off.”

Possible answer: Joe Lieberman.

The parallels are eerie: In 2006, Lieberman was a pro-war Connecticut senator who got into real trouble with his Democratic base. He faced a challenge from the more dovish Ned Lamont, but got backing from the Democratic establishment—even after Lamont won the Democratic primary. He managed to win the seat with the help of the GOP, which abandoned its own candidate.

The schmuck has been a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party ever since, campaigning for John McCain, talking smack about Barack Obama on the trail and even speaking at the GOP convention.

His punishment after Obama and the Democrats stomped all over McCain and the GOP? Less than nothing. The Democrats, including Obama and our own Sen. Bob Casey, voted to let Lieberman keep his committee chairmanship. “He’s with us on everything except the war” has been the refrain since 2007. Except he’s also been with the GOP on approving waterboarding, weakening habeas corpus, blocking suits against phone companies that illegally tapped our phones on Bush’s say-so and God knows how much more.

So who’s to say Arlen Specter isn’t 
a Lieberman redux?

Specter has spent 40 years as a Republican, and admits his switch to the Democratic party had everything to do with naked self-interest. His first few months as a Democrat were, to put it mildly, turbulent. He proclaimed, “I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat,” and boasted that he voted against the president’s budget. Seeming to go out of his way to piss off the unions, Specter declared he would vote against the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier to unionize. Then he flipped, saying he would support the bill after all. The list goes on and on.

Ned Lamont, incidentally, endorsed Sestak on Monday. It’s a seven layer cake of ironies.

Liberal blogger Susie Madrak thinks Specter might be for real. She sees a parallel to Specter’s renewed loyalty to the GOP after Bush saved his ass from a primary challenge in 2004. And Specter seems to have really come around on health reform.

Madrak notes progressives are worried Specter will run to the right against Republican Pat Toomey if he gets the nomination, “but I don’t see that as making political sense. With the economy a mess and people worried sick about their jobs, the Republican message will only resonate with their hardcore base, and their base is shrinking,” she writes. “What I think is, Sestak’s poll numbers prove the opening is on the left and Arlen’s smart enough to take it all the way.”

This, of course, is all speculation. Specter may be making the right noises now, but there’s no guarantee the man has had a real change of heart or political philosophy. Look at the heartburn Lieberman’s causing over the public option, which he may or may not support. Is there anything in Specter’s history to suggest he has any core convictions beside his own career?

Political decisions have consequences. It would be nice if we knew for sure what we were getting in Arlen Specter. ■

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