Arlen Specter has survived a lot of things: a brain tumor, two bouts with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and five squeaker elections for the U.S. Senate. But in an anti-establishment year where the far right hates the moderates and the far left hates the moderates, Specter – whose voting record over the past 30 years is almost perfectly down the center – started off with a handicap. And switching parties probably didn’t help.
If Specter had merely said, ‘I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Party left me,’ he might have been better off. Instead he ran on his seniority, and how he was better positioned than his primary challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak, to help Pennsylvania, an argument undercut by has lack of seniority: Democrats stripped him of it when he flipped, treating him like a lowly freshman. Sure, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden abondoned him in the final weeks, but Specter also started out bitter, remarking that he didn’t want Republican primary voters to pass the final judgment on his 30-year career. Instead, it ended up being Democratic primary voters.
The atmosphere started out grim at the Philadelphia Sheraton, where Specter was holding his “Primary Night Event” (when I called and asked his campaign where the “victory party,” as most politicians call it whether they expect to win or not, was the receptionist was quick to correct me) and it only got grimmer. Specter earlier in the day had shed an uncharacteristic tear when casting his vote. Clearly restless, he came down from his room around six for a surprise chat with reporters. When asked if this was the toughest race of his career he quipped that all six of his elections have been the toughest of his career. He came back down 90 minutes later for a quick walk through with his wife.
I consider it a hint when politicians don’t put up big screens showing the returns. Hillary Clinton had no televisions in the room the night she lost the Democratic nomination (but didn’t concede). Politicians that expect to win like the crowd to cheer the returns as they come in. Specter had one modest flat screen tv, strategically located at the back of the room next to the bar, as if one needed a stiff drink to stomach the results.
On the other hand, it could have just been that Specter’s from another generation of politician. The crowd was mostly older — many of them had known him since law school. His music selection ranged from the 50’s to the 70’s but stuck mostly to Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme. One unfortunate choice, just before the race was called: He Had High Hopes.
Specter entered the Senate 30 years ago with high hopes and he’s achieved a lot in that time. “He’s done more for the state in his 30 years as a senator than any person in commonwealth history with the possible exception of Ben Franklin,” Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell told reporters just as polls were closing. Specter’s seat on the Appropriations Committee ensured that the Keystone State received more than its share of earmarks and federal projects. But Specter truly made his mark in the Judiciary Committee. As with everything, his record was mixed. More than any other senator he was responsible in 1987 for bringing down Reagan’s conservative nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert Bork. But it was his borderline-viscous grilling of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the court that earned him the opposition of feminist groups and nearly cost him his reelection in 1992 (he eked out a 49%-46% victory).
Specter was a thorn in President George W. Bush’s side, demanding (and then retracting) that the President not appoint any Supreme Court nominees that would overturn Roe V. Wade (Specter was pro-choice). Specter voted against his party on labor issues such as the minimum wage, overtime regulations and he long flirted with the Employee Free Choice Act. He championed habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees, grew to oppose the Iraq War and moved to bolster the FISA courts during the warantless wiretapping scandal. And yet Bush championed Specter during his last reelection in 2004 where he barely beat Rep. Pat Toomey 51%-49% in the primary. (Toomey now is the GOP nominee for Specter’s seat and will face off with Sestak in November.)
Specter has been in less of a position to similarly harass Obama, but he did vocally oppose Obama’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner. He also voted against the president’s 2010 budget and to block the release of the second half of the TARP funds.
A Yale-trained lawyer on the Warren Commission investigating Kennedy’s death, Specter helped develop the single bullet theory. His long tenure on the Judiciary Committee also made him an expert in a wide range of legal affairs. And though he often championed lawyers — opposing a $250,000 limit on pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits – as chairman of the committee he spent much of 2005 trying to put together a $140 billion trust fund for asbestos victims that would end all litigation – an effort that ultimately failed in the Senate by one vote.
Specter was mostly known for his sharp intellect and prosecutorial manner – in other words he wasn’t often warm and fuzzy. But he did have a quick wit. I remember at the end of an asbestos mark up one day the committee was trying to schedule the next hearing. A date was proposed that Specter, who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time, shot down because he had a doctor’s appointment. Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who was also a doctor and had more than 80 amendments pending to the bill, offered to personally check Specter over in order to expedite matters. “I’ll let you look at me if you agree to withdraw half your amendments,” Specter quipped. “You drive a hard bargain,” Coburn replied.
Specter’s independent nature has often gotten him into trouble both with his party and at the polls. But he’d always been able to overcome adversity through hard work and his smarts. But, perhaps his fatal move was to negotiate and vote for Obama’s stimulus package. “I believe my duty is to follow my conscience and vote what I think is in the best interest of the country. And the political risks will have to abide,” he said at the time. Unfortunately for him, they did not abide. Toomey had already thrown his hat in the ring for the governor’s mansion before the stimulus vote; afterward, he decided to challenge Specter again. The chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party warned Specter not to come to a Republican State Committee meeting because he’d get booed or people would walk out. Too late, Specter found that the middle was quicksand and even switching parties was not enough to save him.
Tonight, Specter had no words about his accomplishments or the issues that were important to him. He seemed to be holding back tears and sniffled a couple of times as he thanked a long list of those who’d helped him, including his family who shared the stage with him. The speech was less than five minutes long. And then, his arm around his wife, the 80-year-old quietly left the room to chants of “Arlen!” The man who wrote a book entitled Never Give In: Battling Cancer – and Politicians – in the Senate had just lost his last political fight.