Specter’s a Democrat, But Now What?

Arlen Specter and the Democratic Party leadership cut a deal that makes plenty of sense on the surface: Specter is rescued from a doomed Republican primary campaign that would have ended his 30-year Senate career next year, while Democrats pick up what will be (after Al Franken is finally seated) their 60th vote in the Senate—enough, at last, to kill any and all Republican filibusters.

But it’s entirely possible that neither Specter nor the Democrats will get what they expect.

Start with Specter, who argued in a Tuesday afternoon press conference that he didn’t want a verdict on his entire career rendered only by next year’s Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate, a group that figures to be smaller and more conservative than ever, thanks to a flood of defections from moderates this decade.

“I am not prepared to be judged by that jury,” Specter said, adding: “But I am prepared to take on all comers in the general election.”

Fair enough. But he forgot a step in there: to get to the 2010 general election, he’ll first have to win the Democratic primary.

Specter’s oversight is understandable: the party’s top leaders—including Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Ed Rendell—have all apparently offered full-throated support for Specter and will use their weight to try to clear the primary field for him. At his press conference, Specter said that Obama had even committed to campaign for him and that Rendell had proposed an event in D.C. on Wednesday at which all of the party’s big-name leaders would offer endorsements of Specter.

This will all be helpful to Specter, but it won’t necessarily be enough, for two reasons: (1) at least one other potentially formidable candidate, Representative Joe Sestak, remains interested in seeking the ’10 Democratic nomination; and (2) Specter has already begun handing Sestak (or any credible primary foe) the ingredients with which to sow resentment among the Democratic base.

In fact, it’s almost hard to imagine Sestak not taking a chance on a challenge to Specter. He’s 57 years old and, with 49-year-old Bob Casey presumably in Pennsylvania’s other Senate seat for years to come, this may be the last real opening for Sestak to move up. Plus, he’s already sitting on a war chest of $3.3 million and had been positioning to run in 2010 before Specter’s party switch.

On MSNBC on Tuesday, Sestak portrayed Specter’s move as an act of pure self-interest and refused to offer his support. He also pointed out that national Democratic leaders had tried to keep him from running for Congress in 2006—and that he’d ignored them and won. So why shouldn’t he now?

Certainly, Specter said little on Tuesday that might dissuade Sestak from thinking there’s room for a primary campaign.

At his press conference, Specter declared that “the extremists of both parties are taking over”—a claim that most Democrats, who see only the G.O.P. as a bastion of crazed irrationality, would bristle at. To prove his point, Specter cited—twice!—the example of Joe Lieberman. This is the same Joe Lieberman who spent last year making devious insinuations about Obama while campaigning for John McCain. This is not the best way to introduce yourself to your new party mates.

And Specter didn’t stop there. He also reaffirmed his opposition to the “card check” bill that organized labor has long championed, and to Obama’s nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.

In an odd aside, Specter also lamented the role that conservative activists—the same activists who just forced him from the G.O.P.—had played in nominating unelectable candidates in a host of close Senate and House races in recent years and noted that with just one extra Senate vote in 2007, “we” (meaning the G.O.P.) could have pushed through 34 of George W. Bush’s federal court nominees, all of whom were blocked by the Democrats. But wait—the “far right” that Specter is so fed up with were the ones who wanted those nominees on the bench. Shouldn’t Arlen Specter, the new Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, be rejoicing that a bunch of right-wing lunatics were kept off the bench?

By the end of Specter’s press conference, it wasn’t hard at all to imagine Sestak mounting a strong primary challenge to him next year—no matter how much arm-twisting Obama, Reid, Biden and Rendell do on Specter’s behalf.

Specter’s press conference should also give Senate Democrats and the White House pause. Their glee at attaining 60 votes is understandable—but that number may have little more than symbolic value.

“I will not be an automatic 60th vote,” Specter insisted—twice—at his press conference, and there’s reason to believe him.

Card check, which would allow workers to bypass the secret balloting process in organizing unions, is one example. The legislation stalled in the Senate earlier this year when Democrats failed to muster the 60 votes needed to beat a Republican filibuster. Specter, who was intensely lobbied by labor, ended up voting with the G.O.P. When word of his switch spread today, labor momentarily rejoiced: Now that Specter didn’t have to worry about a G.O.P. primary, surely he’d come on board.

“I would illustrate [my independence] by my position on Employee Free Choice, the so-called card check. I think it’s a bad deal,” Specter said on Tuesday.

And on health care?

Appearing on MSNBC on Tuesday afternoon, Ed Schultz, one of the network’s liberal talk show hosts, seemed gleeful as he discussed Specter’s switch. “In the big picture, what does it mean?” Schultz asked. “Health care.”

But wait a minute: Does anyone remember the last great health care debate in Washington, when Bill and Hillary Clinton drafted and campaigned for a universal plan in 1993 and 1994? The Republicans, then every bit the minority party they now are, dug their heels in and offered unified opposition.

Specter was among them. He created a massive (and massively misleading, the Clintons insisted) flow chart that made the Clinton plan look like a bureaucratic nightmare. In his televised response to Bill Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union speech, then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole trotted out Specter’s chart, which quickly became one of the foremost symbols of the successful opposition to “Hillary Care.”

With Specter (and Franken), all that Democrats will have is the theoretical numbers to shut off G.O.P. filibusters. But that theoretical power is meaningless unless every Democrat stands together on every single major vote; a single defection to the G.O.P. will hand the minority the ability to kill just about anything.

The last word here should go to former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who offered the following backhanded response to Specter’s switch: “I can only hope that Arlen will be as independent as a Democrat as he has been as a Republican.”

Specter’s a Democrat, But Now What?