Unwelcome: Sen. Arlen Specter

J.B. Sivanich

Last week, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter announced that he was switching parties and would now be caucusing with the Democrats. This is a major news story, as it will give Democrats the 60 votes – assuming Al Franken is seated sometime soon – to prevent filibusters by Senate Republicans.
Democrats treated this as a great piece of news, signaling the extremes that Republicans have gone to, so far to the right that they are disenfranchising a 29-year-serving Senator, further giving them the position as the “big tent party.”
Vice President Biden was ecstatic that his job of convincing his old Amtrak-riding partner to switch parties was done, and President Obama pledged his “full support” to Specter.
Specter’s decision in its essence, however, came out of a fear that he would lose the Republican primary in his coming 2010 Senate race. In a quite boldly egotistical statement, he said, “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate – not prepared to have that record decided by that jury.”
This does reflect a growing situation on the ground. Over 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans left the party to be able to vote in the highly contested Pennsylvania Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, leaving behind a much more conservative Pennsylvania Republican party.
Specter most likely would have lost in the primary, seeing as at the time he switched parties, he was trailing his more conservative opponent by more than 20 points. Specter was definitely one of the more moderate Republicans; he is a supporter of abortion rights, opposed the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and only voted with the Republicans 65 percent of the time.
Specter will now have to prove to Pennsylvania Democrats that he is one of them if he hopes to win the 2012 primary. This is key, seeing as he will be voting on the replacement for Supreme Court Justice David Souter and, potentially, nationalized health care and a carbon cap and trade system. This all depends, however, on when these second two bills come up for a vote.
Part of the bargain of receiving Specter as a Democrat involved the support of the Democratic party – Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee funding and President Obama as a campaign partner, included – in the Democratic primary.
Specter is 79 now; assuming that he is re-elected to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate, it will most likely be his last term – if he does run again, he will be a whopping 86-years-old. This means after his potential win in 2012, he will have no reason to vote in any particular manner, since he will most likely never face another election.
To simplify, the Democrats will most likely have to put up with a very conservative Senator in their party at the expense of a true Democrat for the next six years in return for getting to most likely prevent filibusters for two years.
If this seems like the short-mindedness typical of Washington, that’s because it is. They could easily have let Specter lose the Republican primary and let him attempt a Joe Lieberman-esque run as an independent. They then could have used their new-found political capital to support an actual Democrat, such as Joe Sestak.
Sestak was elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, and before that was a vice admiral in the Navy where he served for 31 years. He won in a 53-percent Republican, 36-percent Democrat district and still embodies strong Democratic principles.
Instead, the Democrats got a guy who voted for the Iraq war, the Patriot Act renewal, the Military Commissions Act, warrantless eavesdropping, almost all of George Bush’s most controversial appointments and Bush’s tax cuts.
It is hard to believe that Specter is an actual Democrat. It is much more likely that Specter is just another soulless politician who will do anything to win an election and, if elected, will pull the Democratic party to the right and prevent the Democrats from achieving any progressive reform.
This is not just a prediction. In his first moves as a Democratic Senator, Specter has voted against Democratic measures, opposing the budget and opposing attempts to “allow bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages for troubled homeowners.” He also opposes the Employee Free Choice Act, a major labor law, and Obama’s superb new choice to head the Office of the Legal Counsel Dawn Johnsen. Oh yeah, he also said that the Minnesota courts should “do justice and declare Norm Coleman the winner” in the Senate race there.
If Barack Obama campaigned on shaking up the establishment, his support of Specter is one area where he should get an “F.