Arlen Specter: Lieberman Lite?

Arlen Specter is saying all the right things on health reform right now. But Brendan Skwire says the results of the health debate are a reminder of why primary elections matter -- and why establishment Democrats shouldn't be trusted.

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 19, 2009

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Joe Lieberman (right) might have veto power over health reform. Brendan Skwire says establishment Democrats might remember that when they support Arlen Specter in 2010.

Photo by talkradionews, via Flickr.

When it comes to health care reform, progressive Pennsylvanians are pretty lucky. I have no doubt that Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, both members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will vote for a robust public option. Even the Bucks County Blue Dog Patrick Murphy's on board.

In the Senate, Bob Casey has emerged as a strong supporter of a public option. He's on the Health Education Labor and Pension committee, which reported a bill with a strong public option. Joe Sestak -- who is in the House but really wants Arlen Specter's seat --  will vote for a public option. Specter, who really wants to keep his seat, will also support the public option. Each needs some kind of reform to be passed in order to get voters to the polls. Off-year elections already have historically low participation, but its worse when no one has anything to show the voters. Kind of like the Democrats, whose lack of accomplishments is lampooned in this Saturday Night Live sketch.

Now, as everyone knows the Democratic Party on the state and national levels have coalesced around Sen. Specter, who's currently got pretty bad numbers. Really bad -- one polling service has his approval ratings at a dismal 42 percent.

Meanwhile, Joe Sestak has been running an insurgent campaign that flies in the face of his own president. Sestak is burnishing those insurgent credentials with an endorsement Ned Lamont, the man who actually won the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary. This is a seven layer cake of ironies.

Lieberman, like Specter today, was the establishment candidate in the 2006 Democratic primary in Connecticut. The national Democrats wouldn't give Lamont the time of day, but in a close parallel to Specter's recent problems with the Pennsylvania Republicans, Lieberman couldn't win with his Democratic base.

Lieberman may have lost the 2006 primary to Lamont, but with the support of the GOP, who abandoned their own candidate Alan Schlesinger and began working on Mr. Lieberman's behalf, he went on to win the election. The schmuck has been a thorn in the side of the Democratic party he promised to caucus with ever since, campaigning for John McCain, talking smack on 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 Barack Obama and our own Sen. Bob Casey, voted to let Lieberman keep his 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 banning waterboarding, restoring habeas corpus, blocking prosecutions for the phone companies that illegally tapped our phones on Bush's say-so and God knows how much more.

The Lieberman example has led more than a few Democrats and progressives to worry about the consequences of re-electing Specter. Here's a guy who's spent 40 years as a Republican, who admits he switched 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. I did not say that", and boasted that he'd 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. This list goes on and on.

Specter's detractors note that since Sestak jumped into the race, Specter's transformed into a reliable Democrat:

Specter's overall party loyalty score since becoming a Democrat -- counting votes both before and after the primary challenge -- is 87 percent. This contrasts with the 44 percent of the time that he broke ranks to side with the Democratic on Contentious Votes while still a member of the Republican Party...

You can draw a pretty clear line in the sand from when Specter went from sorta, kinda Democrat to OMG totally! Democrat, and it coincides with the date that Sestak announced his challenge.

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

That is the question, isn't it? And when you use Joe Lieberman as an example, the answers are ominous.

Supporters of Mr. Specter see that same poll a little differently. Blogger Susie Madrak (a woman whose sharp eye for trends in politics is never to be underestimated) sees a parallel to Specter's renewed loyalty to the GOP after Bush saved his ass in 2004. And she points out that he's really come around on the idea of a public option for health insurance.

Madrak notes progressives are worried Specter will run to the right against 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."

"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."

All I know is that political decisions have consequences. And while Specter may be making the right noises now, there's no guarantee the man has had a change of heart or political philosophy. Look at the heartburn Lieberman's causing over the public option, which he which he may or may not support.

These are the kind of questions that must be asked of Specter. And of Sestak, on who I expect to have more thoughts next week.

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