Specter Isn't Sitting Too Pretty These Days
Updated 2:13 p.m.
By Dan Balz
Pity Arlen Specter. A week ago he was standing in the White House, a newly minted Democrat, the toast of the town (or at least the portion controlled by the Democrats). President Obama promised to watch his back. Vice President Biden swore he'd do the same.
Today he looks like just another embattled politician still worried about reelection. His former party is glad to be rid of him. His new party has put him through the equivalent of ritual hazing. And having ducked a Republican primary, he may yet have to weather a Democratic primary challenge and then a tough general election.
There is a certain justice in all of this. For years Specter has driven his minders mad. Independent barely describes his modus operandi. Predictably unpredictable might be the better description. Specter has intellect and experience, but a team player he is not.
Democrats knew all this when the switch was in the works, but in case some forgot, Specter has gone out of his way to remind them. On NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, he declared that he would not march in lockstep with his new party. "I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat," he told host David Gregory. "I did not say that."
Specter added to his woes with an unfortunate comment to the New York Times this week. Asked whether he was concerned by the absence of Jewish Republicans in the Senate, he said, "There's still time for the Minnesota courts to do justice and declare Norm Coleman the winner."
It turns out that Specter switched parties at a moment of weakness, not a moment of strength. He was welcomed by the White House and by Senate Democratic leaders but he was not in a position to extract much in return. He did not, for example, demand that the Democrats clear the field for him in the primary, though Gov. Ed Rendell (D) has been trying to pull some strings to make that happen.
Nor was Specter able to extract assurances that he would have prime positions on Senate committees. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) has pledged to do everything he can to help Specter, but there was plenty of pushback from rank-and-file Democrats in the Senate when the Specter news broke. At this point, Specter is the junior Democratic member on his committee assignments. For example, he's gone from ranking Republican to lowliest Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Reid made it possible, through a Senate resolution, for Specter to join the Environment and Public Works Committee, which he had requested. But eight years ago, Reid voluntarily stepped aside when Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party and joined the Democratic caucus. Jeffords was given the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Reid was in line to run. There were no similar moves by other Senate Democrats this time to make way for Specter, which is telling.
Specter's switch was all about personal survival. He was explicit in saying that a bad poll, showing he was likely to lose a Republican primary against former representative Pat Toomey, a Club for Growth conservative, prompted him to switch. He didn't want his career to be judged by the GOP primary electorate, he famously declared.
But are Pennsylvania Democrats willing to make him their nominee no matter what he says and does as a member of their party? In what ways is Specter willing to make accommodations to show some allegiance to the Democrats? So far, the record is thin.
Specter noted that shortly after seeing Obama at the White House he voted against the president's budget because he objected to the provision that would allow Democrats to pass a health care package with 51 votes. That approach, he said, could undermine a basic tenet of Senate procedure for enacting major legislation.
Democrats should hope that Specter will be a reliable vote for health care reform. But he has ideas of his own: Recall his high-profile role in helping to sink Bill and Hillary Clinton's plan in 1994. It was Specter who came up with the Rube Goldberg chart depicting the Clinton plan as a maze of government control. He said last week that he opposes the inclusion of a government run insurance plan as part of health care reform, which is a key provision to liberal Democrats.
What role will Specter choose to play on health care? Certainly he will have his own ideas, but if he plays hard-to-get, if he is a reluctant vote, if he holds out indefinitely as he has sometimes done in the past, then he will not endear himself to members of his new party. That could make him more vulnerable.
Democrats are looking for some sign that Specter recognizes that he needs to make an affirmative statement on some issue important to them. Health care. Torture. A court nominee. But that has rarely been in Specter's DNA. He has operated so long at the midpoint of the ideological spectrum in the Senate, applying his brain power to difficult issues, weighing his options, then--finally--acting. He is not a party boy.
His state has shifted beneath him since he last ran for reelection. He narrowly survived the 2002 primary against Toomey, though then won easily in the general election. In the last year or so, 200,000 Republicans re-registered as Democrats. Specter no doubt assumes they are like he is, voters who wearied of the rightward drift of the national party. He must assume they would be certain to support him as a Democratic nominee next year.
But there is also, in Pennsylvania as elsewhere, an energetic Democratic base enamored of the president and anxious for elected officials to demonstrate their loyalty to the administration's agenda. Would they support Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak in the primary, if he chose to challenge Specter? Perhaps.
The other worry for Specter is the talk that former Republican governor Tom Ridge is now looking into running for the Senate. Ridge was a popular governor from the party's moderate wing. If he emerged as the Republican nominee against Democrat Specter, the race would start without a clear favorite. In that case, however, Specter's age could work against him. He is 79 and has battled cancer. Voters might decide it's time for a change.
Specter isn't likely to change his habits. But if political survival was the principal reason he left the Republican Party, he may be expected to make further accommodations to show that becoming a Democrats means something more to him than a label on a ballot.
May 6, 2009; 1:04 PM ET
Categories: B_Blog , Dan Balz's Take
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