In the last hour before voters sent him packing, Specter invoked a favorite cartoon fighter to sum up why he never changed his style — even as he twice changed his party affiliation.
“Remember Popeye, who used to say, ‘I am what I am’? I don’t think anyone could dress me in different attire. I am what I am,” Specter told reporters just minutes before polls closed in the May 2010 Democratic primary.
Specter lost that day to a two-term liberal congressman who would lose in the general election, ending the career of Pennsylvania’s longest-serving U.S. senator. Specter’s defeat, and now his death 21 months after leaving office, signaled the demise of the tough-minded centrist of either party, willing to tell party leadership to take a hike.
In his legislative heyday Specter’s fists-first prosecutorial style fit in with a rowdy crowd of centrists who regularly flouted their leadership and, stylistically, sought the glare of national media attention.
They were senators like John Warner (R-Va.), who squired Elizabeth Taylor around Washington while cutting deals on Pentagon funding; the late John Chafee (R-R.I.), whose Marine Corps heroism made him the barrel-chested leader of a rump bipartisan budget group; and John Breaux (D-La.), Chafee’s frequent legislative partner who skipped the 2004 Democratic convention keynote address by Barack Obama to throw a retirement party with Ziggy Marley and several thousand pounds of imported sand on the back lot of Boston’s aquarium.
Those senators are long gone now as the number of moderates has steadily shrunk, with six more pending retirements from centrist ranks at the end of this year. Just as important has been the diminished stature of those centrists left behind.
There are still enough moderates, along with some maverick-leaning conservatives, who could seemingly shift the legislative calculus on almost any issue if they were willing to buck Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Instead, more often than not, the Democratic caucus goes along with Reid’s record-level use of parliamentary procedures to forbid Republican amendments, and then the GOP caucus goes along with McConnell’s demand for party unity with a record-level use of the filibuster to block Reid.
Today’s heirs to Chafee-Breaux are Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who have for nearly two years led a bipartisan group trying to negotiate a broad tax-and-spending deal to trim federal debt by $4 trillion. They have not been able to move beyond a vague outline, without an actual legislative draft.