Why I'll miss Arlen Specter's ornery individualism

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Arlen Specter (D-Pa.-cum-R-Pa.-cum-D-Pa.), a.k.a. "Snarlin' Arlen," a.k.a. "Specter the Defector," is one of the most unloved people in politics.

He is ornery, vain, disloyal and a brazen opportunist. He lacks a discernible ideology, puts his finger to the political winds before casting a vote and in the end does what is good for Arlen Specter.

I will miss him.

I will miss him because, whatever his faults, he fought the forces of party unity and ideological purity that are pulling the country apart. "Let me tell you," he complained in 2005, before both parties disowned him, "it's heresy -- I mean rank heresy -- to say you're an elected United States senator and you want to exercise your independence and vote your conscience."

Specter perpetrated this rank heresy over 30 years and through five presidencies. While his colleagues on both sides increasingly submitted to the ritual purification of their views, Specter held the dead (in more ways than one) center, earning a lifetime rating of 44 percent from the American Conservative Union. But over the past 13 months, the heretic finally was cast out -- first by the Republicans and then by the Democrats.

This sort of ideological cleansing has by now become routine throughout the political culture, from Connecticut to Utah. On the same day Specter was excommunicated by Pennsylvania Democrats last week, Republicans in a Kentucky Senate primary cast out a mainstream conservative in favor of Rand Paul, an ideologue so pure he's not sure government-ordered desegregation was such a hot idea. And the purge goes beyond public officials: Also Tuesday, Campbell Brown gave up her job as a CNN anchor, conceding that her non-ideological approach to news couldn't compete with the ideologues in her time slot, Fox News's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.

Specter was a Democrat for the first 35 years of his life, switching parties based on the high-minded principle that the Republicans offered him their nomination to run for Philadelphia district attorney. Fifteen years later he went to the Senate but remained an oddity, a Jewish Republican from Kansas who represented Pennsylvania and had a voice like Richard Nixon's.

He liked to boast that he could "alienate the entire electorate in just two votes." He infuriated his fellow Republicans by opposing Robert Bork, by supporting abortion rights and stem-cell research, and by voting "not proven" on the impeachment charges against Bill Clinton. He infuriated Democrats by supporting Clarence Thomas, by attacking Anita Hill and by opposing Clinton's health-reform plan.

But this act wore thin as both sides demanded more ideological conformity. When Specter, after his 2004 reelection, warned President Bush against selecting anti-abortion nominees for the Supreme Court, conservatives withheld his Judiciary Committee gavel until he groveled and publicly vowed not to oppose pro-life nominees.

Then came his vote for Obama's stimulus package, because he feared "the possibility of a 1929-type depression." He knew it would cause him trouble. That vote, by dooming him in the Republican primary, led to his return, after a 44-year absence, to the Democratic Party.

But once he became a Democrat, his previous efforts to appease the Republican right became a liability. He had opposed Elena Kagan as solicitor general but now had to support her for the Supreme Court. He had opposed the "card check" legislation for union members but now had to support it. He had supported the Iraq war but now had to oppose the Afghanistan escalation.

His Democratic primary opponent, Joe Sestak, finished off the hopelessly contorted Specter with an ad showing him receiving Bush's endorsement in 2004 and playing Specter's boast that "my change in party will enable me to be reelected."

Specter will probably be remembered for that unprincipled quote. I'd prefer to remember him for something else. While everybody was worried about his apostasies on abortion and Anita Hill, he secured a 10-fold increase in spending on the National Institutes of Health over his Senate career -- motivated in part by his own heart surgery, brain tumor and lymphoma. His biggest triumph was the $10 billion he won for NIH last year in exchange for his vote for the stimulus bill -- the very vote that would lead to his banishment from the Republican Party.

In the end, Specter calculated that billions of dollars for medical research -- research that he accurately noted has "saved or prolonged many lives, including my own" -- was more important than satisfying party loyalty enforcers. Only in our very sick political system does that make somebody a heretic.

Dana Milbank will be online to chat with readers today at noon. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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