HOWARD MEGDAL: I was surprised that of all the emotions I felt Tuesday night, watching Arlen Specter give his concession speech, sympathy wasn’t one of them. In short, it was just too hard to develop feelings of attachment for Arlen after decades of thinking of him as a man apart from what I wanted to happen in the country. I’m guessing that’s as good a reason as any for his defeat in the Pennsylvania Senate primary.
For me, Arlen Specter was at first the guy who was mean to Anita Hill. The Clarence Thomas hearings were the first public policy debate I remember being fully engaged in- I recall thinking what a waste of time it was for me to be at Hebrew School on the night Thomas accused the Senate of conducting “a high-tech lynching”.
With sex ed still a few months away, I got to learn about pubic hair in the public forum instead, and in a foreshadowing of the liberalism I came to follow, I knew that there was something creepy enough about Thomas, and truthful about Hill, that this was not a man who should serve on the United States Supreme Court. Yet Specter’s manner toward Hill was so condescending, it was hard to see him as anything other than an agent for the opposing side.
And I never could warm to him. He was Jewish, and I value Jewish public servants, but there was something off-putting about him. He was always so risk-averse; voting “not proven” on President Clinton’s impeachment, speaking up just enough against the Bush agenda to let you know he found it reprehensible, but making sure his vote was there for Bush at crunch time anyway.
Then, finally, this shot at survival. There was much discussion of the effectiveness of the ad where Specter talks about switching parties to “get re-elected”- far less discussed is how stupid this was to even say. There’s a presumption that politicians value survival, but also enter public service to further certain goals. The balance between the former and the latter has a lot to do with how cynical you are.
Specter left nothing to the imagination. So as lovely as it was to get his vote on health care and many other issues, it was hard to know exactly what a Specter vote would look like if he were re-elected in 2011. One presumes it would have everything to do with whim, unless he decided he wanted to run again at age 86 in 2016.
So I was left wondering, upon hearing a few people yelling out “Arlen!” during his concession speech: who exactly was so passionate about Arlen Specter, whose legacy clearly appears to be of a politician hellbent on only his own survival?
JESSICA BADER: When the polls began to indicate that Arlen Specter might not be the Democratic nominee for the Senate seat he had held for so long as a Republican, my first concern was for how this might affect the Democratic agenda going forward. No, I’m not talking about the shallow “Obama endorsed Specter and he lost the primary, so this is bad for Obama” pronouncements that were flying around today. Let’s not forget that Specter will still be a Senator for the remainder of the year and that some pretty important matters will be dealt with by the Senate between now and then, including but not limited to a Supreme Court confirmation. What I’m wondering is what kind of votes Specter will cast now that he no longer has a political career to fight for.
It’s the sort of question one might ask about any politician who is no longer running for re-election or eyeing another office, but it seems an especially relevant question in Specter’s case. Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen how Specter’s voting habits changed in response to strong primary challenges, first from Pat Toomey back when Specter was still a Republican and then from Joe Sestak after Specter switched parties, and how he voted with Democrats about 65% of the time when his main concern was the general election in a state that Barack Obama won by 10 points. This tells us a lot about what Specter thought was the optimal voting strategy to appeal to whatever slice of the electorate he needed to appeal to at any given moment, but it doesn’t really tell us anything about how Specter would vote if appealing to the electorate was no longer a consideration.
Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein thinks that Specter will continue to vote like a Democrat for the remainder of his term, albeit with the possibility of a few curveballs that may induce liberal heartburn. His argument makes sense (as does his assertion that a victorious Specter would shift to the right in order to prepare for a general election showdown with Toomey), but there’s really no telling what a politician might do when all that’s left to motivate him are his deeply-held beliefs and more deeply-held grudges.
Specter’s party switch last year was a good thing for Obama and the Democrats (it’s difficult to imagine healthcare reform passing if Specter had remained a Republican). It was also a good thing for Specter (yes, he wound up losing the Democratic primary, but had he stuck with the GOP, Toomey was poised to play the Rand Paul to his Trey Grayson). It will be worth keeping an eye on how he votes for the remainder of his Senate career and whether the Democratic establishment offers him anything that will keep him in the fold.