When an office colleague told me this afternoon that Republican Senator Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party, I had a flashback. In the fall of 1987, I was a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College. One of my professors assigned us a paper regarding the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. A few days of research (research without the Internet!) were sufficient to turn me off to Bork’s strict constructionist perspective as well as his advocacy for excessive executive power.
One afternoon, I watched the televised Senate confirmation hearings inside our campus TV room near Charlie’s Place or “The Pub” as we called it with one of my classmates. I was especially interested to assess the performance of Senators Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy. Biden, the Chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time had just abandoned his presidential campaign following allegations of speech plagiarism. How would Biden conduct himself after this disappointment? Meanwhile, Kennedy was an especially assertive critic of Bork’s record and making headlines.
Yet it was Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter that captured my attention. I had never heard of Specter before. Bork and Specter engaged in a riveting intellectual repartee about the “original intent” of the Constitution, the right to privacy as well as executive power. Bork was a terrifying and brilliant advocate for the warped view of federalism that metastasized in the Reagan years and influenced future Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Watching those hearings it seemed to me that Republican Arlen Specter was the Judiciary Committee’s most persuasive critic of Bork’s reactionary dogma. Later that evening I called my Dad, who to this day remains the wisest voice about politics I know. We discussed the hearings and I complained that Specter belonged in the Democratic Party. My Dad sagely responded that it’s good for the country if Republicans have “moderate” voices such as Specter and he noted it enhanced the opposition’s credibility against reactionary figures such as Bork. Well, that seemed reasonable enough to me at the time.
Four years later I was bitterly disappointed when Specter supported Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court and contributed to the Republican lies about his former colleague, Anita Hill. Hill had accused Thomas of sexual harassment. At the time, Senator Ted Kennedy’s nephew was a defendant in a rape trial. As a result, Kennedy wasn’t comfortable aggressively challenging Thomas’s refutations of Hill’s testimony. Many liberals at the time were hoping that Specter would once again rise to the occasion and take the fight to Thomas as he did with Bork. Instead, Specter turned his fire on Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas’s nomination was approved.
To the detriment of consumers and wage earners, Arlen Specter was an enabler for Clarence Thomas to become a guaranteed supporter of reactionary activism on the Supreme Court. Following the 1987 Bork hearings, Specter became a favorite target of Republican conservatives and he was desperate to appease them with the Clarence Thomas hearings. Hence, Clarence Thomas is just as much a part of Specter’s legacy as Robert Bork.
Since the 1991 Thomas hearings, a pitiful template for Specter’s performance as Senator was established: for the next eighteen years he simultaneously appeased and disappointed the radical right that demanded purity. Meanwhile, moderates and liberals were continuously let down when Specter talked the talk with respect to civil liberties under President George W. Bush but failed to walk the walk.
Twenty-two years ago I would have been thrilled if Arlen Specter had joined the Democratic Party. Today, my perspective is rather cold. Yes, I acknowledge that once Al Franken of Minnesota is seated the Democratic caucus will have a filibuster proof majority on paper. And to the extent activist progressive oriented legislation is enacted as result of Specter’s defection, i.e., health care reform, that’s all to the good. Also, I’m enjoying the Republican Party’s humiliation after years of watching southern Democrats defect. Perhaps, Specter’s defection will be the start of a trend.
Specter himself however is likely to be a Joe Lieberman like presence in the caucus. He’s pro-corporatist/pro Wall Street and opposes the Employee Free Choice Act. Specter is also hawkish, pro-war and very much representative of the establishment's flawed national security mindset that created the mess we’re currently in. Had Specter remained in the Republican Party, we had an outstanding opportunity to elect a genuine liberal from Pennsylvania in 2010.
Only radical crazies remain in Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party now boasts 200,000 additional voters and Democrats could easily defeat Specter’s conservative antagonist, Pat Toomey who is Exhibit A of the far right’s psychosis. Had Specter somehow prevailed in his Republican primary fight, a liberal Democrat would have likely defeated him in the general election.
Hopefully, a credible and organized liberal will challenge Specter in the 2010 primary. A credible challenger for example might force Specter to flip flop on the Employment Free Choice Act and support worker rights. Specter has already demonstrated malleability to ensure his political survival whenever he appeased the far right.
Like a lot of politicians, expediency matters more to Arlen Specter than principle. Now that Specter’s a member of the Democratic caucus, we liberals need to aggressively persuade him that’s in his best interests to support our issues. A credible primary challenge is the best way to do just that.