Ask Not What Arlen Specter Can Do for Sonia Sotomayor

In the fall of 1991, the political right was gunning for Arlen Specter. Four years earlier, he’d infuriated them by

In the fall of 1991, the political right was gunning for Arlen Specter. Four years earlier, he’d infuriated them by lending a critical assist to the successful campaign to kill Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination and he’d done little in the intervening time to make peace with them. Now, with Specter facing reelection in 1992, they were threatening him with a primary challenge.

Specter seemed likely to withstand the challenge from Stephen Friend, a staunchly conservative state legislator, but he wasn’t in the mood to take chances. So when Clarence Thomas, George H. W. Bush’s choice to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, was threatened by sexual harassment charges from Anita Hill, Specter took it upon himself to act as Thomas’ de facto defense attorney.

With the cameras rolling and the nation transfixed, he subjected Hill to a withering cross-examination, repeatedly challenging her account and accusing her of perjury. The gambit worked—sort of. It bought Specter the intraparty reprieve he’d wanted (in the April ’92 primary, he crushed Friend by a two-to-one margin), but his boorish treatment of Hill turned female voters against him and brought Lynn Yeakel, a previously unknown fund-raiser for women’s causes, to the brink of victory in the general election. As always, though, Specter survived in the end.

Now, nearly 18 years later, Specter again sees a high-profile Supreme Court nomination as the perfect means to make amends with his party’s restive base. Except this time, thanks to his switch to the Democratic Party, the base is on the left, and not the right.

This weekend, he appeared on FOX (FOXA) News Sunday to discuss the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Had he not switched parties in April, it’s possible, maybe even likely, that he would have used this forum to amplify Republican objections to Sotomayor—namely, that her ruling on an affirmative action case and a 2001 speech show her to be an “activist judge” who is obsessed with race. After all, until his switch, Specter was facing a serious challenge (far more serious than Friend’s in ’92) from former representative Pat Toomey. So Sotomayor’s nomination would have offered him a chance to score some points with a skeptical G.O.P. base.

But now it’s the Democratic primary that Specter must worry about. And despite the best efforts of party leaders in Washington and Pennsylvania, it looks like he’ll face a challenge next spring from Joe Sestak, an ambitious and well-funded congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs. Uh-oh. Better brush up on those pro-Sotomayor talking points!

Actually, Specter recited them quite nicely. After Lindsey Graham utilized a context-free interpretation to Sotomayor’s 2001 speech to claim that Sotomayor had claimed that “somebody with her background would be a better judge than a guy like me, a white guy from South Carolina,” Specter rallied to her defense.

President Obama was looking for diversity, he said, “and I think Judge Sotomayor brings that. But let’s put her comment in context with the whole speech, and it didn’t stand out all that much in context. And further, put it in context with her whole record. She has an extraordinary academic record—Princeton and Yale, a prosecutor, have experience in international trade matters, on the district court, trial court experience, circuit court of appeals.

“So she has an extraordinary record. And I believe that it’s fair to ask her about the question, but she has a long solid record to show that she’s fair and not biased.”

Host Chris Wallace pressed Specter about Sotomayor’s speech, but Specter wouldn’t budge.

“She meant that somebody with her experience has something to add,” he said, pointing out how almost uniformly white and male the Supreme Court has historically been.

“If you go back to the Supreme Court discussion room—very small room, small table, nine people sit around and decide monumental questions. And the diversity and the point of view of Latina woman is significant. It adds to the mix.”

Specter also defended Sotomayor on her ruling as an appeals judge in favor of a New Haven affirmative action program, a decision that the right is using in an effort to paint her as a Lani Guinier-esque “quota queen,” and insisted that she meets the same standards that he applied when he voted to confirm John Roberts in 2005.

Of course, Specter steadfastly denied that his view has anything to do with mollifying his new party’s base. He reminded Wallace that he’d opposed Bork, “one of the most highly touted nominees ever for the Supreme Court by a Republican president,” and maintained that he is “duty-bound under the Constitution to exercise independent judgment under separation of powers.”

The reality is more complicated. That Specter is backing Sotomayor does seem generally consistent with the impulses that hurt him when he was a Republican (for instance, opposing Bork). Free of all political pressures, it would be fair to assume that Specter would support Sotomayor. But it’s also fair to question whether he would have shredded Anita Hill in 1991 had he not been facing a G.O.P. primary threat. And it’s equally fair to note that his partisan conversion hasn’t gone as well as he initially anticipated—making it more urgent that he find a way to make good with the base.

With Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Ed Rendell all enthusiastically on board, Specter seemed to assume that rank-and-file Democratic support would automatically follow and, as a result, spent his first few weeks as a Democrat needlessly antagonizing the party base—seeming to endorse Norm Coleman’s recount efforts in Minnesota, among other slights. He’s since been disabused of that notion, with Democrats in the Senate denying his bid to retain his seniority (at least through 2010) and with Sestak seizing on liberal unrest to justify a primary challenge.

For decades, Specter’s game has been to vote his conscience when he can get away with it and to throw red meat to the base whenever the next primary is approaching—as it now is. So, whether he personally likes and believes in Sotomayor really isn’t the issue right now. He has no choice, and he knows it.    

Ask Not What Arlen Specter Can Do for Sonia Sotomayor