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Goodbye Snarlin' Arlen

By May 19, 2010

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Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter leaves the 4th Street Deli with his wife Joan on Primary Election Day, May 18, 2010, in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter never made any bones about being a career politician. Far from being insulted by the term, Specter embraced it.

Tuesday evening, however, Specter became a career politician without a career. Democratic voters, apparently displeased with the five-term incumbent for seeking temporary refuge in their party, tossed him out on his ear, choosing instead to nominate a lesser-known (and much more liberal) U.S. Congressman by the name of Joe Sestak.

Ultimately, Pennsylvania voters discovered that Arlen Specter has no party. He's called himself many things over the years -- a "moderate" Republican, an "ardent" Democrat (the list goes on) -- but if he was anything, he was the first real "Republicrat" America has ever seen. Willing to go wherever the winds blew him, Specter was happy as long as his rear-end was planted comfortably -- and firmly -- in what he saw as his Senate seat.

As a resident of Pennsylvania and a former political print journalist, I've had more than a few interactions with Specter. Reporters never had to wonder when Specter was up for re-election. Every six years, like some weird comet with droopy cheeks and fuzzy hair, he was suddenly everywhere. He would swoop into your city like the "Music Man," making promises everyone knew he wasn't going to keep (including him). For example, Specter had been promising to bring a federal courthouse to the City of Lancaster, Pa. since the late 1980s. Every six years, he'd say that if he were re-elected, this would the term in which that federal courthouse would be built. "We've got the money allocated," he'd always say. "We really do."

Specter would also be sure to remind anyone who'd listen that he was in line to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, thanks to his seniority. Specter did ultimately win the position, but was cast out less than two years later when Democrats captured control of the Senate.

In any case, it was always worth covering Specter's visits, if only because his appearances were so rare. For the other five years, Specter was like -- well, frankly ... a specter -- in both the literary and corporeal senses. No name was better suited for a politician than that of Specter.

Nevertheless, the first indication that Specter was in trouble came in the 2004 Republican primary. Specter beat U.S. Congressman Pat Toomey, but it was a nail-biter and it was hardly enough to instill confidence. The margin of victory was just two thin points -- 51 percent to 49.

The second indication that Specter was doomed came last year when he switched his party affiliation. In 2009, after preliminary polls showed that he would not only lose his seat in a Republican primary, he would look foolish doing it, Specter promptly -- and without any shame whatsoever -- switched party affiliations. Upon making the switch, Specter put aside any pretense of morality. Claiming he had always been a Democrat at heart, Specter tried in vain to prove it by voting with his new party 95 percent of the time.

It's important to note here that Specter wasn't always so transparent or shameless. In fact, there was a time when Specter was actually principled. Earlier in his career, Specter voted his conscience regardless of the enemies it earned him -- and it frequently earned him many. He was given the nickname "Snarlin' Arlen" because of his ferocity in confirmation hearings. Although he frequently angered members of his own party (as he did when he voted against Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination in 1987), most would agree that in a political fight, Specter was a powerful ally. Specter almost single-handedly pushed through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, rabidly attacking the nominee's sexual harassment accuser, Anita Hill. In 2002, PoliticsPA, a popular Pennsylvania political web site, named Specter "Toughest to Work For," solidifying Snarlin' Arlen's legacy.

The final and most troubling indication that Specter knew he was in for the fight of his life this year was the emergence of plans to build a federal courthouse in Lancaster city. After several decades of empty assurances, Specter was finally delivering on his pledge. The move was so out of character for him that he might as well have worn a flashing neon sign around his neck proclaiming, "I'm Arlen Specter, and I'M VULNERABLE."

There are those who are claiming this morning that Specter's defeat is part of some larger illness that has come to infect the Democratic party, and without question a pall has fallen over establishment liberals as well as Democrats who slid into office on President Barack Obama's coattails in 2008. The reality, however, is that Specter's fate Tuesday night had nothing to do with any national trend. Specter was responsible for Specter's defeat. Plain and simple. End of story.

In a way, Specter's tale is a cautionary one. He sacrificed his dignity, his seniority and his legacy to hold on to his seat for what? Two more meaningless years. Rather than fighting for what he believed would help his constituents, Specter fought for what he believed would help him. By the end of his career he was so twisted, he needed help screwing his pants on in the morning.

Alas. The Democrat Party truly is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

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Photo © Win McNamee/Getty Images


May 19, 2010 at 11:42 am
(1) Deborah White says:

Good riddance to Arlen Specter. We agree on that, Justin.

Now if Democrats could likewise dump twin-turncoat/opportunist Joe Lieberman, the Senate would be a far more principled place. (Not sure we agree on that one!)

May 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm
(2) Mrs Nancy Reagan says:

It’s Democratic Party, not “Democrat Party.” Get it right!

May 24, 2010 at 3:52 pm
(3) Dave In CO says:

Uh, Deborah, Leiberman is a turncoat precisely BECAUSE he has principles. Which is why Democrats loathe him. Imagine, voting against party lines because you disagree on principle.

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