The Abrasive Moderate: The Death of Arlen Specter (1930–2012)

He was one of the best U.S. Senators of our era, but the end of Specter's career was an object lesson in political transformation — and the extinction of Republican moderation

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Matthew Cavanuagh / EPA

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter speaks to the press in Washington, D.C., after announcing his intension to switch to the Democratic Party on April 28, 2009

As friends, colleagues and admirers mourn the death on Sunday of former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, it’s hard to avoid a metaphor about American politics. Specter spent most of his 30-year Senate career as a Republican before switching to the Democratic Party in April 2009. That partisan switch was partly about self-preservation: Specter was facing defeat in his upcoming Republican primary at the hands of a conservative opponent who complained that Specter had become too liberal for the GOP. But it also reflected a larger reality of national politics: moderate Republicans are a vanishing breed.

(MORE: The Price of Opportunism: Arlen Specter’s Tough Fight)

Since Specter’s arrival in Washington in 1981, his party has grown more conservative and less tolerant of heterodoxy. By 2009 moderate Republicans were already an endangered species in Washington, and since Specter’s 2010 defeat (switching parties wasn’t enough to save Specter, who lost in the Democratic primary that year), several other prominent moderates have been defeated or have announced their resignations; another one, Scott Brown, may be headed for defeat this fall. (See Nate Silver’s recent look at the fate of the moderate Senate Republican.)

Specter’s last throes in Washington were dramatic. He was one of three Senate Republicans to vote for Obama’s 2009 economic-stimulus package. (Only one, Maine’s Susan Collins, will return to Washington in January; she too may draw a conservative primary challenge in 2014.) Specter’s vote also enabled the passage of Obama’s Affordable Care Act in the Senate in December 2009; had he voted no, the bill likely would not have passed. In this sense, the conservative challenge to Specter backfired mightily. And although Republicans did pick up Specter’s seat in that 2010 election, Pennsylvania has been trending from purple to blue. Its incumbent Democratic Senator, Bob Casey, appears to have a safe lead in his re-election bid, and Mitt Romney has basically given up on the state. The time may come soon when Pennsylvania’s GOP finds itself looking for a Senate candidate who looks a lot like Arlen Specter; whether the national party’s base will be in a mood for such accommodations is another question.

(PHOTOS: Scenes from the Pennsylvania Senate Race)

The rest of Specter’s rich career is well covered by this write-up by Massimo Calabresi from an April 2006 TIME feature on “America’s 10 Best Senators,” which celebrated Specter under the header of “The Contrarian”:

Plenty of people succeed in politics by being everyone’s friend. It takes a special talent to make it as a guy whom allies call “abrasive,” “brutal” and “prosecutorial.” Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is known for being blunt, not sparing even members of his own party. Unsatisfied with answers Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave in hearings on the Administration’s no-warrant domestic wiretapping last February, he said the AG’s defense “defies logic and plain English,” and told the Washington Post that Gonzales was smoking Dutch Cleanser. And although Specter has mellowed over the years, his recent brush with mortality (he’s fighting Hodgkin’s disease) has made his famous impatience more acute. No wonder few Republicans will accept invitations to join him on foreign trips, even when they are to South America and the Middle East.

The chairman of the formidable Judiciary Committee is an equal-opportunity offender. He nearly lost his 1992 Senate race when feminists mobilized against him after he grilled witness Anita Hill during the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Clarence Thomas. In 2004 Specter found himself on the other side of the feminist divide, nearly losing his long-awaited chance to run the committee when he opined that a Supreme Court nominee opposed to abortion rights wouldn’t make it through the Senate.

Specter’s principled contrarianism fits in the tradition of lawmakers Senate historian Richard Baker describes as the conscience of the institution, men and women who “stand up and say, ‘Hold on a minute.'” In addition to conducting hearings on Bush’s no-warrant wiretapping program, Specter, 76, has repeatedly challenged FBI chief Robert Mueller on what Specter sees as shortcomings in the agency’s performance; he chided the Justice Department for not participating in hearings on protecting reporters’ sources and sent the White House a blistering list of questions he would have asked Harriet Miers had she not withdrawn her nomination as a Supreme Court Justice.

Specter can also be constructive. With Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, he turned what could have been colossal battles over the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito into disciplined and respectful hearings. He has hammered out enormously complex deals in committee on asbestos compensation and immigration reform. And as chairman of a powerful appropriations subcommittee, he was largely responsible for doubling spending on the National Institutes of Health and for increasing education spending 146% over 11 years. All of which he’s managed while surviving a brain tumor, open-heart surgery and, in the past year, the chemotherapy treatment for his Hodgkin’s disease. Says his former chief of staff David Urban: “You can find a lot of people who don’t like Arlen Specter, but you can’t find anyone who doesn’t respect him.”

MORE: Why Senator Specter Switched Parties — Really