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Specter Switches Parties in Final Hamlet Act

April 28, 2009

The Washington Post and AP are reporting that Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter will officially change parties. But while Specter's gambit to escape both his reactionary party and an uphill battle in the 2010 GOP primary could provide Democrats with a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, President Obama's allies shouldn't be so sure. After all, whether involving his tortured indecision and reversals over NSA domestic surveillance, the U.S. attorneys purge, presidential signing statements, the Employee Free Choice Act and so much more, Arlen Specter is the Hamlet of Capitol Hill.
As Chris Cillizza reported in the Post, Specter concluded in a statement released today that there was something rotten in the state of the Republican Party:

"I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary," said Specter in a statement. "I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election."

He added: "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

But just what Specter plans to be or not to be, that is the question. As his recent history shows, he's held more positions on the key issues than are dreamt of in either party's philosophy.
To his credit, Specter was one of only three Republicans to vote for President Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill. In February, he went so far as to chide his GOP colleagues, "I think there are a lot of people in the Republican caucus who are glad to see this action taken without their fingerprints." But that brief display of backbone, one which earned him scorn among his party's faithful in Pennsylvania, by no means makes him a sure vote for the Obama agenda.
Consider, for example, the Employee Free Choice Act, euphemistically deemed "card check" by its union-busting Republican opponents. As ThinkProgress noted, when the EFCA was brought up in 2007, Specter was the only Republican to vote to end cloture. But facing pressure from his GOP colleagues and primary challenger Pat Toomey, Specter to applause from Grover Norquist announced in March that he would oppose the bill:

"The problem of the recession make this a particularly bad time to enact employees choice legislation...I am announcing my decision now because I have consulted with a very large number of interested parties on both sides and I have made up my mind. Knowing that I will not support cloture on this bill, Senators may choose to move on and amend the [National Labor Relations Act], as I have suggested, or otherwise."

During President Bush's tenure, Senator Specter similarly repeated a failure to launch. After the initial furious explosion of hot air, Specter almost immediately lost momentum and never broke the dark gravitational pull of planet Bush.
Specter's reaction to the Bush administration's politically-motivated firings of U.S. prosecutors is a case in point. In March 2007, Specter blasted Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, proclaiming, "One day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later." But when Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) pressed for subpoenas for Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, Specter quickly backpedaled.
In the end, the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee along with Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley voted to authorize the subpoenas. But as Paul Kane described in the Washington Post, a chastened and frozen Arlen Specter abstained from the vote. Afterwards, Specter initially refused to disclose his position to reporters. Ultimately, though, Specter owned up to his staggering act of political cowardice:

But Specter had a change of heart and decided to clear the air, tracking down a few reporters. He did not deny that his mouth might have opened during the call for "ayes", but Specter denied saying anything, uttering any sound.

"The fact of the matter is that I did not say anything. I did not vote and say either 'aye' or 'nay'. I just sat there hoping that it would all go away through negotiations," he said. "Factually, I did not say a thing."

That July, Specter reprised his performance as the Danish prince, this time in the context of President Bush's program of illegal domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. Again, he talked tough to Attorney General Gonzales during his Senate testimony over the infamous March 2004 bedside visit to a hospitalized John Ashcroft. An indignant Arlen raged at Gonzales:

"Is your department functioning? Do you review these matters? How many matters are there which do not come to our attention because you don't tell us and the newspapers don't disclose them?"

After hearing Gonzales contradict himself regarding the so-called "other intelligence activities" at the heart of the Ashcroft matter, Specter exploded again:

"Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?"

Alas, that was just for show. Traveling later that week aboard Air Force One with President Bush, Specter sang a different tune. When Democratic Senators Schumer, Feinstein, Feingold and Whitehouse called on Solicitor General Paul Clement to name a special counsel to investigate Gonzales, Specter labeled the move "a great fundraising device for the Democratic Party." He then slandered his Judiciary Committee colleague Charles Schumer of New York for "playing politics."
So Senate Democrats shouldn't expect too much of their new colleague. In the great Shakespeare tragedy, a tormented Hamlet ultimately fulfilled his filial duty and killed Claudius, exacting his revenge. All Arlen Specter apparently remembered of the play was that Hamlet died in the attempt.
UPDATE: As The Hill reported, Specter announced just one month ago "I am staying a Republican because I think I have an important role, a more important role, to play there." Apparently, he's since had enough of the slings and arrows of his GOP colleagues' outrageous fortune.

One comment on “Specter Switches Parties in Final Hamlet Act”

  1. You don't get to be a senior Senator without knowing which way the wind is blowing...not just in DC, but in your home state as well. Right of center Dems like VA's Sen Webb and Gov Schweitzer of Montana are part of the new "big tent" that Obama is pitching. Here's hoping that Olympia Snowe shows some of Specter's (expedient) bravery.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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