Arlen Specter likes it when he’s described as the best lawyer in the Senate; there are a lot of lawyers in its chambers. Specter, 79, particularly enjoys his reputation as someone who will go wherever the facts lead. This is the man, after all, who served as chief counsel of the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President Kennedy, and it was Arlen Specter, more than anyone else, who devised the controversial theory that a single bullet killed the 35th president.
And it was Specter, who, following the facts, suggested that the commission depose President Johnson in the assassination probe on the reasonable theory that, as Kennedy’s vice president, Johnson had as much to gain by the president’s murder as anyone, and therefore, should have been treated as a suspect. That deposition never happened, but Specter was proud that he tried because that is what the facts demanded.
So as shocking as it is that Specter, now serving his fifth term in the Senate as a Republican from Pennsylvania, would switch parties, a clear-eyed examination of the facts may have made his decision inevitable. The facts are these. Arlen Specter is, above all, a survivor; there is no room in the new Republican Party for a politician as maddeningly unpredictable as Specter; by joining the Democratic Party, he is simply following the moderate swing voters who have been, and remain, the key to his success at the polls. Since he was elected to a fifth term in 2004, 239,000 Republicans and independents in Pennsylvania have switched to the Democratic Party. Facts are facts.
It was clear that Specter could not win the Republican primary in Pennsylvania next year against the man he defeated in 2004, former Congressman Pat Toomey. In his home base of Philadelphia and its suburbs, the number of registered Republicans have decreased by 85,000 since 2004. The party which chose him as its nominee in 2004 no longer exists in Pennsylvania or, frankly, anywhere else in the country. It is a party that is contracting ideologically, geographically and in raw numbers.
“Since my election in 1980 … the Republican Party has moved far to the right,” Specter said in announcing the switch. “I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.”
The Big Tent Republican Party that made it possible to elect centrist Republicans like Specter is a thing of the past. He is the last of the breed that once included Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood of Oregon, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, Jacob Javits of New York, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, William Cohen of Maine, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Paul Laxalt of Nevada.
They were called Rockefeller Republicans, so named as a tribute to Nelson Rockefeller, the former vice president and governor of New York who in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s gave the political brand its credibility. Almost 30 years of Reaganism, capped by the last eight years of George Bush’s undiscerning conservatism, has effectively killed the brand. Specter won his first election—for Philadelphia district attorney as the GOP nominee—while still registered as a Democrat.
He defected to the GOP for 40 years, and in order to survive, he had no choice but to switch back.
Despite its continuing status as a swing state, Pennsylvania has been a solidly blue state for more than 20 years. George H.W. Bush was the last Republican to carry it in a presidential election. The key to the Democratic victories has been the overwhelming turnout among Democrats in Philadelphia, and lately, in its suburbs. Running as a Democrat from Philadelphia is now a huge advantage. Specter was not at all coy about his plans to appeal to the overwhelmingly black Democratic voters of Philadelphia. He told reporters yesterday that President Obama said he would come to Pennsylvania to campaign for him.
Much has already been made of the fact that Specter could give the Democrats the 60th vote they need to rebuff Republican filibusters, and therefore be able to pass any legislation they want. But that is to misread and underestimate the orneriness of Arlen Specter. “I will not be an automatic 60th vote,” he said and proceeded to disappoint Democrats right out of the gate on an issue of crucial importance to them: “I would illustrate that by my position on employee's choice, also known as card check.”
Specter will clearly have to make nice with Democratic voters, and that will involve making nice with their president. But Specter, remember, is a man of exquisite political irascibility. He will go out of his way to find ways to assure voters that he is his own man. Getting along is not his way of going along. He did not vote guilty or not guilty in the Clinton impeachment trial; he is the only senator on record not to have chosen one of those two options. Instead, he invoked Scottish law and voted “not proven.”
If there is a hint of opportunism in Specter’s action, it is worth remembering that it has worked for him thus far. He is the first Pennsylvania senator to be elected to a fifth term since the introduction of direct election of U.S. senators in 1913. Pennsylvania voters, unlike say West Virginians, tend to get bored with their senators after a while. Somehow, Specter has survived that and worse—a brain tumor, heart bypass surgery, Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So a little partisan disadvantage—OK, huge partisan disadvantage—is hardly likely to stop him now. That’s just a fact.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.
SOPHIA A. NELSON: Specter Says Moderate or Die.
DAYO OLOPADE: Democrat in Training.