Arlen Specter: A Poor Man's Richard Nixon


When Arlen Specter, the former Pennsylvania Senator who died Sunday at the age of 82, was negotiating to become a Democrat in 2009, he believed that he would retain his GOP-acquired seniority on the Senate committees in which he served. Specter thought he’d gotten a commitment from Majority Leader Harry Reid—Specter’s switch would not only help him avoid a primary challenge from the right, but would give the Democrats 60 votes in the Senate. However, the Democratic caucus resented the idea that Specter could jump ahead of lifelong Dems on the seniority list. Reid was thus unable to keep the agreement with Specter. Losing the committee seniority, Specter said, according to Politico, “was the worst moment of my life.”

The worst moment of a then-79-year-old man’s life? Think about that. Specter had, by then, lost his parents. He had gone through several bouts of cancer, a benign brain tumor, and cardiac bypass surgery in the previous decade. He had two children, and surely there were difficult, even frightening moments in the course of their lives that would deeply concern any parent. He had been married for 57 years, and even the most loving relationships go through some tough times. 

Consider this: As an attorney, Specter had represented demented genius Ira Einhorn, whose girlfriend was found decomposing in a trunk in his Philadelphia apartment in 1979. Specter argued that Einhorn should be released without bail, and eventually got the bail reduced to $40,000. Before the trial began, Einhorn—subsequently convicted in absentia—skipped town and wasn’t found for 16 years. One might think that would constitute a pretty bad moment, too.

But, no, losing his committee assignments was the worst moment of Arlen Specter’s life. That tells you quite a lot about him. From Democrat to Republican to Democrat again—Specter had switched parties the first time when he ran for city office in Philadelphia in 1965, from Democratic to Republican—from his fierce opposition of Robert Bork to his cutthroat cross examination of Anita Hill, Specter was always, above all, a politician.  

He relentlessly fought to win office, and then, to hold office. Between 1965 and 1980, he lost four races. He lost his election for a third term as the Philadelphia District Attorney, his first political office. He also lost a race for mayor, and was defeated in the GOP gubernatorial primary. To lose, and lose, and lose again, yet to keep going requires tremendous determination and a profound need for both political affirmation and power.  

After finally being elected to the Senate in 1980, Specter navigated the perils of being a moderate Republican for most of that decade. Supporting abortion rights to win the support of suburban women, yet opposing gun control in one of the most enthusiastic states for hunting in the country, Specter carved out a pretty good formula for winning in Pennsylvania. He had a lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO of about 60 percent, good for a Republican, which split the labor movement in a state where it still matters. It’s not surprising that Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president and a longtime Specter supporter in Pennsylvania from his time as president of the United Mine Workers, tweeted a warm tribute to the memory of Specter: “Arlen Specter was the kind of politician all too rare today—we didn't always agree, but we always knew he'd listen. He’ll be missed.”

As the Republican Party moved ever more to the right, however, Specter had more trouble keeping his political balance. His own shifts became sharp zigs and zags rather than gradual curves. Bork was an intellectual hero to conservatives, and it took guts for Specter to oppose him. But it meant that when in 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas for a position on the Supreme Court, Specter needed to demonstrate his Republican loyalty. He did so in his lacerating cross-examination of Anita Hill, accusing her of perjury—a charge, however legally absurd, underscored by Specter’s reputation as an expert prosecutor. To the end of his life, Specter seemed shocked that so many women found his treatment of Hill cynical and appalling.  

So it went for the rest of his career. Specter tried to split the difference during the Clinton impeachment trial by voting, “not proven,” which the official record converted to “not guilty.” He then survived a primary fight against libertarian conservative Pat Toomey in 2004, which foretold his political mortality. Following his re-election that year and in order to keep his job as Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Specter essentially promised senior Republicans he would never oppose a judicial nominee the party preferred. Later, he opposed, supported and then opposed George W. Bush’s policy regarding the treatment of terrorism suspects.

We know the history of the last few years. He zigged by voting for the Obama stimulus, but only after limiting the total cost of the package and inserting some worthy, but not particularly stimulative, money into it for health-care research. The bill would not have passed without his support. Then, hoping to fend off another challenge from Toomey, it was time for Specter to zag: Despite his purported loyalty to organized labor, he flipped-flopped on its biggest legislative priority in 30 years: the so-called card check for organizing bill.  

That didn’t stop Toomey, so for the second time in life, Specter changed parties (despite telling Bill Clinton in 1996 when Clinton pressed him to become a Democrat, that you get “only one sex change.”) He quickly changed positions on what became Obamacare, too. Again, his vote was needed to pass the most significant piece of social legislation in decades. None of this ended up being enough to give Specter what he wanted most: another term in the Senate. When he was caught on tape transparently admitting that he only changed parties so that he might be re-elected, he was doomed.

So what kind of guy is it who cherishes the power of his seniority more than anything on Earth, who sometimes promoted progressive goals, sometimes conservative ones, depending upon the exigencies of his own career, and who got to the highest levels of his profession despite a reputation for being so nasty to staff and colleagues that he was known as “Snarlin’ Arlen?” (I can confirm this side of Specter from my lone encounter with him. About ten years ago, while waiting in line at a coffee joint in a Jersey beach town, I heard a familiar voice behind me, well, snarl, to a customer fussing over his order, “You want to just get your coffee and get out of here already, so the rest of us can have ours?” I turned around and saw the slightly stooped and very annoyed senior senator from Pennsylvania.) 

David Karol, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, described Specter in an e-mail to me so precisely that he evoked the closest parallel I could find for Specter’s career: “Specter did this [enjoy an enormously successful career after losing three elections in a row] without dynastic backing, a personal fortune or even looks and charm. Just brains, hard work and, it would seem, more than a little ruthlessness and shamelessness."

A brilliant, ruthless political obsessive, who bounced back from several defeats without possessing any of the helpful personal tools of the profession? A surly man who desperately clung to power until the bitter end? Yes. Arlen Specter was a poor man’s Richard Nixon. Readers of the Prospect will remember that Nixon opened relations with China, established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and introduced a more encompassing national health-insurance plan than the one that finally passed in 2010. (We can leave the other side of the ledger unremarked upon.) Specter, too, took away Bork even as he gave us Thomas, supported abortion rights even as he embodied one of the greatest episodes of institutional misogyny of the late 20th century, suffocated labor’s most important goal (he had a lot of help there) even as he let the stimulus and Obamacare live. All in all, Arlen Specter always did what he had to do. He was a politician.

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