It’s easy to brand Arlen Specter’s decision to leave the Republican Party—a move directly precipitated by his realization that his career would end with next year’s Pennsylvania Senate primary unless he left the G.O.P.—a nakedly unprincipled act of political survival.
And that’s just what Specter’s critics, on the right, on the left, and in the middle, have been doing this week.
“Self-preservation in the first order” and “a cold, crass political calculation” is how G.O.P. chairman Michael Steele described Specter’s switch, while Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is threatening to challenge Specter in next year’s primary, pointedly asked, “Is that the type of individual we want?”
On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart rolled tape of Specter’s press conference earlier that day, at which the senator bluntly stated: “The prospects for winning the Republican primary are bleak. I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.”
“How refreshing is that?” Stewart asked sarcastically, before impersonating Specter’s voice and saying: “I just want to be clear: Principle played no part in this decision. This was politics. I like my job.”
The irony, though, is this: Specter’s defection, while immediately necessitated by self-preservation, was a direct result of his willingness to take principled stands.
What Specter’s critics, perhaps intentionally in some cases, are failing to take into account is why his political career reached the point it did this week, when jumping to the Democrats emerged as his only realistic means to survive. (A G.O.P. primary poll taken days before Specter made his switch showed Pat Toomey, who came within two points of knocking Specter off in the 2004 Republican primary, ahead by a staggering 21 points—about as bad as it can possibly get for an incumbent senator in a primary.) The reason, of course, is because he’s put principle above partisan politics more often—and on more consequential votes—than just about any senator in recent history.
For instance, he played a crucial role 22 years ago in defeating Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court. When Reagan announced his choice of Bork, a circuit court judge who had long been admired by the right (and feared by the left), in July 1987, it marked an effort not just to place an outspoken conservative on the court, but also to reignite the Reagan revolution itself, which had run out of steam in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal and the Democrats’ success in the 1986 midterm elections.
Bork’s opponents were in a tough spot, though. His writings had been radical, but his resume and legal credentials—to say nothing of his intellect—were impeccable, and there was no modern precedent for denying confirmation to a Supreme Court nominee on purely ideological grounds. Specter, a former prosecutor, used his perch on the Judiciary Committee to question Bork for hours in hearings that received extensive national coverage.
Viewers may not have understood the nuances of this grilling—Specter quizzed Bork about “original intent,” “Madisonian majoritarianism,” and Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “clear and present danger” free-speech standard—but when Specter concluded by announcing that he couldn’t support Bork, it gave considerable cover to other wavering senators to join him, which they did: Bork’s nomination was defeated, 58 to 42. And the Reagan revolution never really recovered.
Conservatives, of course, were furious. Robert Walker, a devoutly conservative Pennsylvania congressman, called Specter’s Bork vote “a Panama Canal kind of issue,” a comparison to the late ’70s treaty that cost several Republicans their careers. But Specter survived the Republican primary when he ran again in 1992, defeating a conservative state representative by 30 points.
The Bork battle stands as one of Specter’s most visible and consequential breaks from the G.O.P. line, but it was hardly the first or only example. Two years before Bork, he’d announced his opposition to Reagan’s MX missile program, once again enraging the hawkish, Reagan-loving right. In response, the White House threatened to cut off all national Republican money from Specter’s 1986 reelection campaign.
He’s always been pro-choice, even mounting a presidential campaign in 1996 in which he pitched himself as a vehicle for cultural moderates who were fed up with the religious right. He raised no money, received scant media coverage—and was showered with boos by G.O.P. audiences whenever he made his case. It was a futile campaign, but one that was, however disastrously, about principle.
And, of course, there was this year’s vote on the stimulus bill. The entire Republican establishment and every conservative activist group turned opposition into an article faith, treating the issue as a debate over the future of capitalism, freedom and democracy. When the bill reached the Senate, Specter knew he could have simply joined that chorus and saved his career. At the time, Toomey was publicly saying that he wouldn’t run. Conservatives, it was clear, were likely to give Specter a pass in the 2010 primary—however grudgingly—if he would play ball with them on opposing Barack Obama’s agenda.
And yet Specter negotiated some changes and then voted for the bill. Conservatives called him a traitor (and worse) and, within days, Toomey was in the race—and pulling away in the polls. In raw political terms, Specter’s decision was an act of career suicide: Isn’t that the very definition of principle?
For some odd reason, Chris Matthews (who earlier this year flirted with challenging Specter in Pennsylvania in 2010) went on MSNBC on Tuesday night and did his best to move the Specter-is-unprincipled ball down the field. In an embarrassingly self-flattering rant in which he patted himself on the back for refusing to “eat it” by signing on to one party’s complete agenda, Matthews said that Specter is “the opposite of Edmund Burke—he doesn’t stand for the people, he goes with the flow.”
Pennsylvanians, Matthews predicted, will see in Specter a man “who was loyal to a political party for a half a century that gave him elective office time after time after time … and then just like that when he sees a better opportunity, he splits to the other side. You’ve got to wonder about a guy’s character who does that!”
Was Matthews not watching these past three decades, when Specter, time and again, was brazenly disloyal to the G.O.P. and voted his conscience instead? Does he not understand that the only reason Specter now sees “a better opportunity” in the Democratic Party is because he has voted with that party—and against the Republicans—on so many critical issues?
Sure, Specter is trying to save his career. But the only reason his career was in such danger is that, apparently, there’s no room in his old party anymore for a principled moderate.