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Arlen Specter, New Democrat: How Do You Catch a Cloud and Pin It Down?

4 years ago
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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Sen. Arlen Specter, who left the Republican Party exactly a year ago to become a Democrat, recently signaled another shift, this one on confirmation of Supreme Court justices. "I'm rethinking the standards of how I approach the decision on a nominee," Specter told the Pennsylvania Press Club.

As the 30-year Senate veteran explained why, it was hard to avoid wondering: Was he offering a rationale, or a rationalization? The question arises on a regular basis in connection with Specter, 80, whose quirky, legalistic and sometimes opportunistic operating mode brings to mind Maria, the exasperating postulant in "The Sound of Music": "How do you solve a problem like Arlen? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?"

Specter has sorely tried the patience of each party many times over, and managed to stun them both with a verdict drawn from Scottish law in the Senate's 1999 Clinton impeachment trial: Not proven, therefore not guilty. He's been invaluable to presidents of both parties in achieving highly divisive goals, such as the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991 and the passage of President Barack Obama's stimulus bill just last year.

The zigs and zags do not seem to bother rank-and-file Pennsylvanians overly much. Most polls show him comfortably ahead of Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired three-star Navy admiral, in the May 18 Democratic primary. Both major newspapers in the state, while praising Sestak as a worthy contestant, have endorsed Specter. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette called him "the real deal." The Philadelphia Inquirer anointed him "a senator for the ages."

Clearly it is no use trying to put Specter into the usual boxes. He is Jewish and grew up in Russell, Kansas, better known as Bob Dole's hometown. He was a Democrat in 1965 when he won an election for Philadelphia district attorney on the Republican line -- so he then became a Republican. He gave a job in the D.A.'s office to a Democrat named Ed Rendell, who became a close friend and now is governor of Pennsylvania. Before Joe Biden became vice president, he was Specter's best friend in the Senate, a relationship born of decades riding Amtrak together.

As he has demonstrated by beating Hodgkins disease twice since 2005 and all opponents since 1980, Specter has staying power. "Arlen comes across as snippish," Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, told me. "But the more time you spend with him, the more you like him. I've known him for a long, long time. I think he comes across as genuine. When you talk to Arlen, he tells you straight."

Political junkies across the nation got a taste of that bluntness on April 28, 2009, the day of his party switch. He said polls showed his chances in a GOP primary rematch against conservative former congressman Pat Toomey were "bleak," so he was casting his lot with Democrats instead. He sounded like a man trying to keep his job. But he also, as usual, made a viable intellectual case for his big move: He said his increasingly conservative party had deserted him.


As Specter told me later in an interview, "When I joined the Senate, it was filled with moderates." He rattled off a string of last names: Heinz, Danforth, Chafee, Cohen, Hatfield, Weicker, Stafford, "I could go on and on." By 2009, the moderate GOP contingent was down to Specter, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. "Slim women," Specter said of the two Mainers. "The three of us could fit in a phone booth."

IN THE DEMOCRATIC FOLD

In Bethlehem the other day, Specter was at a type of event relatively new to his political calendar: Getting endorsed by an elected Democrat. In this case it was John Callahan, the mayor and a candidate for Congress. Specter has been a "great advocate" for the Lehigh Valley, Callahan said. He pointed to Route 412, running along the Lehigh River just below us, and said Specter had secured $15 million to upgrade it.

Specter teased Callahan about pestering him for the money and explained how he was able to deliver it: "That's what somebody on the transportation subcommittee on appropriations can do to bring money to this kind of a worthwhile project." He added that he'd secured $41 million for projects inside Bethlehem city limits.

He's aggressively proud of his earmarks, the hometown projects that lawmakers insert into bills without the usual competitive screening process in committees. House Republicans are trying to eliminate them entirely, but Specter calls earmark "a good word." His rationale: He knows more about Pennsylvania's needs than "some bureaucrat in a basement."

This unvarnished ombudsmanship is a large part of Specter's cross-party appeal. To many people, what matters is that he brings home the bacon. For Democrats, however, it's not his only appeal. He has long been a defender of abortion rights, minority rights and civil liberties, even while championing justices who disagree with him. As he told a dozen gay and lesbian voters at a breakfast last week in Allentown, "I have been active on civil rights forever."

According to Franklin and Marshall's Madonna, Specter's voting record averaged 65 percent Republican over 28 years but has been 95 percent Democratic since he switched parties. "He's more of an Obama Democrat than Obama," Madonna joked. He added, more seriously, that "we shouldn't just take the Obama votes this year as indicative of what he might do long term."

Over the past year, Specter went from opposing to supporting a public option in the health care bill, from opposing to supporting some form of a bill making it easier for workers to form unions, from criticizing to supporting Dawn Johnsen's controversial nomination for a key Justice Department post (now a moot issue; she has withdrawn). He even sided with liberals on Afghanistan, opposing Obama's troop surge there.

As Sestak comes at him from the left, Specter's adjustments -- or evolutions --- have made Democrats feel more comfortable about him. Not that so many were all that uncomfortable. The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO has endorsed him since 1998. Rick Bloomingdale, the group's incoming president, described Specter as a demanding partner who is "not an automatic vote on anything," but is a partner nevertheless: "He always wanted his facts together before he went into battle. It was up to us to make sure he had the ammunition and facts he needed. That's Arlen. We know how to work with him. When we give him what he needs, he generally supports us 9 out of 10 times."

In his meeting with the gay group, Specter promised to look into, or have someone else look into, a wide range of issues important to gay people – fixing a flawed state law on AIDS testing, co-sponsoring a student non-discrimination act, persuading lagging Democrats to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to protect gays at work, changing immigration laws so gay partners and spouses aren't deported, changing estate taxes so surviving partners don't lose the homes they shared with the deceased, examining if gay couples pay more for family health coverage than other types of families.

Liz Bradbury, 52, who runs a gay advocacy group called the Pennsylvania Diversity Network, has never voted for Specter before -- "I'm a dyed in the wool Democrat. I don't vote for Republicans." But she's talked to Specter about gay issues for many years, and she likes him.

Her first encounter with him was shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He had just been to the Shanksville area field where United Flight 93 crashed, and was shaken. Bradbury said she asked him about the visit and he told her it was horrible, that the plane hit so hard it had disappeared into the ground. "He was so personable, so moved by that," she said. She considered voting for Sestak ("he has a great record") but his Navy career leaves her cold. When he mentioned his military background to her at a Pride Festival, she said she told him: "Great. We can't be in the military. We're all gay."

Specter provoked the wrath of feminists nationwide with his 1991 defense of Clarence Thomas and hostile interrogation of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Bradbury remembers Specter's role but doesn't consider it a fatal flaw, in part because her expectations are low. "I've been with a partner for 22 years and we have absolutely no rights in this state," she said. "Am I comfortable with politicians? No. Do I hope they'll do the right thing? Yes."

The Young Democrats of Pennsylvania are too young to recall much if anything about the Anita Hill episode. Bound by their by-laws to endorse the state party choice (Specter) or no one, they picked Specter. Tim Brennan, 32, an Allentown attorney who heads the group, told me it was partly a practical decision. In a difficult year for Democrats, Specter has a track record of winning and "one of the best political teams I've ever seen," he said. The party switch "does come into play with a lot of people," Brennan said. But even when Specter didn't have the Democratic label, "we weren't always unhappy with what he was doing."

TURMOIL AMONG REPUBLICANS

Specter's move has sown anger and feelings of betrayal among some of the Republican friends and associates who were loyal to him at great cost. Not least of them is Rick Santorum, the conservative former senator who recently said he supported the more liberal Specter in 2004 because Specter promised to back George W. Bush's court nominees.

Specter has denied he ever made that commitment and he bristled at the press club lunch when asked if he and Santorum should take lie detector tests to settle the question. "My integrity, established over a long career, doesn't need a lie detector test to establish its veracity," he said stiffly.

David Patti was communications director of the Pennsylvania GOP in 1986, when Specter ran for re-election after voting against the MX missile and conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. "The Republican message was 'hold your nose and vote for him, at least it's a vote for the majority.' Every cycle it got tougher," says Patti, who is now president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania Business Council.

And tougher and tougher, until what now seems like Specter's inevitable exit from the GOP. "I'm very conflicted," Fred Anton, president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, told me. A Republican, he said he is "very close" to both Specter and Toomey and "very much appreciative" of Specter's "unique contributions" to his former party, such as defending Thomas and shepherding Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to confirmation. How will Anton vote in November? He wouldn't say. He does intend, however, to remain friends with Specter: "I don't knock 30 years of friendship. That's very important to me."

David Taylor, executive director of the association, was less tactful about the defection. He said Santorum, "my old boss and friend," went all out to help Specter prevail over Toomey in 2004 and will now be held responsible "for all of Specter's future misdeeds." He said his father, who worked with Specter in the district attorney's office in the 1970s, "would always stick up for his old buddy Arlen" despite his liberal votes and now feels betrayed. "It's just heartbreaking," Taylor said.

There is a lot of joking among Republicans that Specter went where he was more comfortable, said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based GOP consultant who worked in Ronald Reagan's 1976, 1980 and 1984 campaigns. "There's some truth to that," he added. He wouldn't say how he would vote, but that seemed obvious when I asked him if he thinks Specter is a principled man. He laughed and said that would be true under the theory that "I'm a man of principle and my first principle is flexibility."

You could also argue that Specter is pragmatic and analytical and, as he says of himself, considers issues case by case. Either interpretation leads to the same conclusion: Specter is unpredictable. His longtime GOP friends have trouble locating "a consistent line of thought" in his positions, Patti told me. He put himself in that category as well. Specter is principled, he said, but also "very, very complex."

A COMPLICATED MAN

There's no better illustration of Specter's "complexity" than his disquisition on the Supreme Court last week here at the press lunch. Specter is feeling miffed these days (make that betrayed -- it's going around) by Chief Justice John Roberts' 2005 testimony to him, as head of the Judiciary Committee, that he would be an umpire, call balls and strikes, respect precedent and spare the system any "jolts." But Roberts and four colleagues recently overturned 100 years of precedent by deciding corporations could spend however much they wanted in campaigns. That was "a hell of a jolt," Specter said. He also said Roberts did a "180-degree about-face" from his confirmation testimony when he disregarded congressional fact-finding in a case about the Voting Rights Act.

Back in 2005, when Roberts was nominated, Specter put more weight on what Roberts told the Judiciary Committee than what his record showed. He now is indignant that the "platitudes" at the confirmation hearing did not accurately predict how Roberts would lead the court. The result of his new thinking: Rely primarily on past work as a guide to a nominee's future behavior. "We have to look back into the record," Specter told me. "There were indicators in Roberts' early record, when he was assistant White House counsel, that he was very far to the right."

It's inarguable that Roberts does not resemble an umpire. But did Specter really expect that he would? Specter pointed out to me that Roberts won confirmation with a lopsided 78 votes. But Democrats split 22-22, with many of them worried about what the Roberts record foretold. And Specter is an experienced hand. When I asked him if other nominees had misled the committee, he said yes. When I asked who, he gave me one example: Thomas. Does he regret his role in those hearings? "I made the best judgment I could at the time and I'll stand by it." Is he glad Thomas is on the court? "I've already answered that question."

The answer is perhaps more discernible in Specter's posture as Obama prepares to nominate a new justice. He sounds like a liberal firebrand, urging Obama to forgo a "conciliator" and instead name a dynamo capable of competing with outspoken conservative Antonin Scalia on "the ideological battleground" of the court.

It's true that the court has become an ideological battleground. But it is also true that Specter is under challenge from the left in a primary. So while there is an evidence-based underpinning to Specter's view, there's a political rationale as well.

A HARD-NOSED PLAYER

Specter plays political hardball at a pro level, and never misses an opening. At the press club lunch here in Harrisburg, the moderator read a question that asked why Specter, if he is so worried about spending and deficits, voted for the banks bailout and Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill. Specter said Vice President Dick Cheney had come to the GOP Senate caucus and told his fellow Republicans that if they didn't support the bailout fund, they would turn George W. Bush into a modern Herbert Hoover.

So there, Mr. or Ms. Conservative Questioner -- Cheney made me do it. As for the stimulus, Specter says it averted a 1929-style Depression and may have been the most important vote he ever cast in Congress. Right behind his vote against Reagan nominee Bork.

The primary campaign has been a showcase for the shrewd, very tough style that has helped Specter survive both illness and political extinction. One of his talking points on the trail concerns a raucous town meeting about health care that became famous on YouTube. It shows Specter standing his ground against furious opponents of the health bill. He's now using the incident to demonstrate how feisty he is. "I didn't want the headline to read, 'Citizen Evicted,'" he says. "I wanted the headline to read, 'Senator Keeps His Cool.'"

For a while it appeared Sestak might have a chance to overtake Specter with a big media push in the final stage of the campaign. But with less than three weeks left and Specter's campaign in full-fledged attack mode, that seems less likely.

Sestak had barely begun to introduce himself in a TV ad last week when Specter targeted his House attendance record and the circumstances of his Navy retirement in a TV counter-offensive. So before voters in the state have much sense of who he is and why they should choose him instead of Specter, Sestak is having to defend, explain and attack back.

Nor has Sestak made a sustained or coherent case against Specter, who was after all a 28-year senator from the party voters soundly rejected in 2008. That's turned off some of the liberal netroots who used to be enamored of Sestak. At Daily Kos, some commenters are saying Specter stands a better shot in November. And where did I first hear about this? From Specter's campaign.

At 80, most people in Specter's circumstances probably would have viewed 2010 as a good year to retire. That doesn't appear to have been on the table for a nanosecond. "He's got force of personality and willpower like nobody I've ever seen. He will not be denied," Taylor, the former Santorum aide, told me. Those are qualities you want on your team – a realpolitik consideration that may sway Democrats tempted to rebel.

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