The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, May 1, 2009

Nightingale of the Senate

Arlen Specter Was Never Singing Out of Tune with Republicans; He Was Just Lonely.

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs . . .
~ John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” 1819

The poet Keats never traveled to America in his short life. It is well documented that he wrote the above lines in the garden of the Spaniards Inn at Hampstead, London. Yet with its darkly visceral imagery, one could almost swear he did so while sitting between the distinguished but dusty denizens of the U.S. Senate. If so, then maybe the specter of lost youth and decrepitude he saw haunting the chamber was Arlen Specter, the former senior Republican, now junior Democratic, Senator from Pennsylvania.

Specter insisted he was not leaving the Republican Party but that it had abandoned him.

“This is a painful decision,” said Specter. I know that I'm disappointing a lot of my friends and colleagues – the disappointment runs in both directions . . . I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans . . . It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable . . . I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.”

For their part, most Congressional Republicans disparaged his move as entirely self-serving.

“Let's be honest,” snarled Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, “Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.”

While celebrating in public, Democrats know that Specter is personally no great prize if they are being honest with themselves behind the scenes. This is not so much a conversion, after all, as the return of a prodigal.

Specter was a Democratic Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia back in 1965 when he decided the quickest way to replace his unpopular but Party-backed boss was to run against him as a Democrat. At the time, he labeled himself “a Kennedy Democrat” running as a Republican to fight corruption. Others at the time labeled him “Specter the Defector,” remembers David Broder of the Washington Post.

While writing a recent profile about him, Newsweek reporters interviewed numerous Capitol Hill staffers who anonymously described Specter as “difficult,” “irascible,” “unreliable,” and “mean.”

Specter has voted with Democrats about forty percent of the time in recent years but everyone knows he is far from a reliable rubber stamp to give Democrats a sixty vote supermajority on every issue. Specter is a true moderate and, even more so, a true independent.

His motivations may seldom be pure but Specter is certainly no ideologue and, in truth, has often helped to pass important, useful legislation. Specter is sort of the nightingale of the Senate. It is not so much that he is singing out of tune – at times his song can be quite robust and beautiful. The problem is that none of his former GOP colleagues are willing to stay up late anymore. Such behavior does not fit Party orthodoxy.

The GOP has “failed to confront and learn from the devaluation of diversity within the Party,” bewails Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine in a New York Times op/ed piece.

Her predecessor, William Cohen, recalls when he and Specter were members of the “Wednesday Group,” a regular meeting of moderate Republicans. “When I first arrived in 1979, there were about twenty to twenty-five Senators at the lunch each week. By the time I left the Senate in 1997, there were about five regular attendees.”

Former Republican Senator Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island remembers that when he and other moderate GOP legislators lost re-election bids in 2006, some conservatives celebrated ridding themselves of “wobbly-kneed Republicans.” Now, he concludes grimly, “we are watching the same celebration of ideological purity at the cost of winning elections.”

Conservative columnist William Kristol puts on a brave face and postulates Specter’s leaving is a blessing in disguise for Republicans. With sixty seats in the Senate, Obama will “be responsible for everything. GOP obstructionism will go away as an issue . . . This will make it easier for GOP candidates in 2010 to ask to be elected to help restore some checks and balance in Washington.”

“In reality, until Tuesday, Arlen Specter caucused with the Republicans, and he voted with his party seventy percent of the time in the 110th Congress,” former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman counters in the New York Times. “It is a sure bet that his voting record will now change. I fail to see the satisfaction in that.”

Ed Rogers, a White House aid to former Presidents Reagan and Bush 41, is even blunter. “Notice to Republicans – Arlen Specter changing parties is good for the Democrats and President Obama and bad for us. If you think otherwise, put down the Ann Coulter book and go get some fresh air . . . Who knows if he will be elected as a Democrat in November 2010. The damage will be done right away, when he votes with the majority.”

In spite of this, many conservatives insist the only way for the GOP to grow and flourish is to become even more ideologically restrictive. Columnist Kimberly Strassel lays out their case in today’s Wall Street Journal.

“There will be a strong Republican temptation to cut deals on health-care or energy, hoping to get credit for bipartisanship or for making policies less bad. But [voting ‘no’ on these issues] is the only way for congressional Republicans to demonstrate a philosophy to voters . . . of the Party of limited government and entrepreneurship. This is different from a message of outreach, which the Party also desperately needs but is accomplished primarily in the field.”

After twenty years trying to convince the middle class and Independent voters, with dwindling success, that tax cuts for the rich trickling down was the best way to help everyone, we can only wish the GOP good luck with its latest paradoxical logic.

Specter was in the same position in 2009 that John McCain found himself in 2006. He was the Republican most likely to win the next general election with an increasingly Democratic electorate but least likely to win the GOP primary because he lacked conservative chops. What is more, the policies and positions necessary make him sufficiently acceptable to the Republican core would poison his attractiveness outside it.

Columnist Gail Collins of the New York Times sums it up nicely. “The real import of this story [is that] Arlen Specter, with his unparalleled instinct for self-preservation, became a Democrat because the people of Pennsylvania like the Democratic agenda better. And the Republicans were too fanatical or deluded to allow him to straddle the line.”

Thomas Davis III is president of the Republican Main Street Partnership. He offers the following ominous analysis. “The GOP has lost the same eighteen states in five straight presidential elections, and John McCain wasn't within ten points in any of them. Those states and the District of Columbia account for 248 electoral votes [of the] 270 needed to win the White House. With the loss of Specter, the Senate delegations from those states are thirty-four Democrats and two Republicans."

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Fred Barnes splashes further cold water on Republican hopes. “The states with Senate races in 2010 do not favor Republicans. They must defend nineteen seats, six in states won handily by Barack Obama. In three – New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania – Democrats also have a built-in, blue-state edge . . . In two other states – Florida and North Carolina – Republican chances are no better than fair. Only in Iowa . . . are Republicans assured of holding on.”

Barnes limits Republican takeover opportunities to the three states of Connecticut, Illinois, and Ohio. He concedes North Dakota, Arkansas, Delaware, and Colorado are further possibilities but only if Republicans field stronger candidates than any which have stepped forward to date.

Nightingales singing solely after dark is a common misconception. In fact, ornithologists now believe the only nightingales that sing at night are unattached males seeking a mate. Arlen Specter is no prize as a human being but if he is liberal enough to caucus with Democrats as a U.S. Senator, he is conservative enough to have remained with the GOP. Maybe the reason he was bothering the latter with his singing in the middle of the night is that he was feeling lonely.

Republican spinmeisters have a duty to attempt trivializing Specter’s exit. However, conservatives would do well to be honest with themselves about how this reflects on the larger state of their Party. If not, they will be the ones groaning as their former populist appeal grows pale and thin, they whose thoughts are full of sorrow and despairs. It may well be they, rather than Specter, who can no longer distinguish the difference between night and day.

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