Senator Arlen Specter has been called many things by his former fellow Republicans over the years, but “classy” has never been a term they used for the man. His announcement today that after nearly 30 years in the Senate as a Republican he will cross the line to join the Democratic majority is the capstone on a career built not on ideological purpose or seeking after the right course for the country, but on service to the worst kind of personal interest, a lust for manipulative control of every situation, and the crass pursuit of power for power’s sake.
For months, Specter has insisted he would not switch. A few weeks ago, Specter was bending NRSC Chair John Cornyn to his will, hitting opponent Pat Toomey for being too conservative to win a general election. Today, by his actions, Specter admits it is he who is out of step with his electoral base–not just in policy, but in manner–and only a political move this desperate could bring him any chance at the victory he craves. Unlike Joe Lieberman, Specter didn’t wait for his likely rejection in a primary–nor did he take the principled route of registering as a political Independent. Instead, he joined the Democrats’ winning squad, immediately putting his race at the top of the national list.
I am staying a Republican because I think I have an important role, a more important role, to play there. The United States very desperately needs a two-party system. That’s the basis of politics in America. I’m afraid we are becoming a one-party system, with Republicans becoming just a regional party with so little representation of the northeast or in the middle atlantic. I think as a governmental matter, it is very important to have a check and balance. That’s a very important principle in the operation of our government. In the constitution on Separation of powers.
But such things matter little compared to the fearful prospect of spending the rest of his days, as the line goes, “wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio.” Today, he reportedly declared to President Obama via phone: “I’m a loyal Democrat.” And so he is — and not for the first time, as Michael Barone points out.
In the backrooms of the Judiciary Committee in the US Senate, staffers came to know the real Arlen Specter as a man forever driven by too much Machiavellian influence, and too little principle. He played dice with policy and nominees as if they were his private playthings. He would go back on any promise, and stab any member in the back, to achieve his purposes. The same motivations that led him to sink the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork would occasionally lead him to pursue a tactic supported by the right — denouncing Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, or taking on Anita Hill.
In each case, Specter did these things not because of personal motivation toward the right path for the country, but because of personal motivation toward the right path for Arlen Specter. It’s worth noting that, despite his claims that the Republican Party has moved too far to the right for him, Specter’s views on health care policy are now almost indistinguishable from the plan he famously helped destroy on the floor of the senate a decade and a half ago.
The conservative movement is the victim here, poor wandering child that it has become–a victim as it so often is of gullibility and poor leadership. The grassroots supporters and donors deserve apologies from a number of people who supported Specter over his most recent opponent, Pat Toomey, and who could have prevented this drama from playing out over the past six years. They particularly deserve apologies from Rick Santorum, the pro-life leader who swallowed his principles to back the liberal abortion-defending Republican, from a bevy of movement leaders in Washington, co-opted by a pragmatic viewpoint and the lure of a permanent Republican majority, who betrayed their grassroots followers, and from George W. Bush, whose last-minute endorsement of Specter (back when such endorsements were electoral positives) in the 2004 primary effectively decided the matter.
These two men and the groups who followed their lead saved Specter’s career–but anyone who has seen Arlen Specter in action knows that this is how he returns a favor. America’s political right never seems to recognize the power of personal motivations for their elected officials–it fails to realize that there are some men who get into politics because they want to make the world a better place. And there are some men who get into politics because they like to see others grovel — because absent the trappings of electoral power, nothing would insulate them from the disrespect and loathing of their peers.
Arlen Specter has said repeatedly that Pat Toomey is too conservative to win in the state of Pennsylvania. This is now a statement which will be definitively put to the test in 2010 in an election sure to mark a defining moment for the Republican Party, and what its future holds.