Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Specter is Stalking Washington: Arlen Pays His Dues, He Ratifies Bush’s 2004 Gamble

arlen specter
Those watching Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter rapping Teddy Kennedy’s knuckles during the Alito hearings may have concluded that at long last Specter has decided to swing back at the most prominent Democratic Alito adversary. It’s far more complicated than that. While there is no doubt that Kennedy antagonized Specter, the irrevocable deed to push Specter to the conservative side was done in the 2004 campaign when President Bush, at Sen. Rick Santorum’s urging, decided to back Specter against a hot conservative primary challenger, Rep Pat Toomey. Toomey was everything that Specter was not: pro-life, predictable on a host of issues and it would be natural for Santorum to back Toomey and for Bush to at least take a pass on the primary.

For Specter was on the ropes and could see that many years of thumbing his nose at conservatives—especially on the Robert Bork nomination—threatened to end his career. It all seemed to turn to ashes just as he was within grasp of his long coveted Judiciary chairmanship. The Republican base didn’t like him; the Democrats had their own fish to fry. Then Santorum, realizing that he would be up in 2006 which would be a tough run, determined to cut a deal with Specter: Santorum would endorse Specter and try to get Bush to campaign in his behalf—if. If Specter would give a quiet promise to play ball on Supreme Court nominees. Specter wouldn’t have to change his stance; he could expound on how independent and pro-choice he was, but in the end, the Judiciary committee had to be run with discipline. Specter would have to play ball. The stratagem was concocted that Specter could roam far and wide and make goo-goo statements pleasing to The New York Times and his liberal buddies but with a leash that could be pulled taut if and when he was needed. If Specter agreed, Sanctorum would try to convince Bush that with control of the Senate in the balance, it would make sense to support a Republican incumbent.

Specter eagerly agreed. His lifelong goal to chair Judiciary was in the balance and he desperately wanted to achieve that ambition. Sanctorum behaved like a true Machievelli Prince by lobbying Bush and convincing Bush that the deal would stick. Bush assented; he would campaign for Specter even if it got him in trouble with his conservative base. Thus it was that Pat Toomey, a better man than Specter, went down to defeat. It was no deal made in heaven. Santorum and Bush both paid a price: in disillusionment with their base (Specter is paying a price now).

Conservatives howled that Specter was untrustworthy had earlier proved to be disloyal. Sanctorum gritted his teeth and said Specter would be true but Santorum hasn’t recovered from a wave of cynicism about it even yet: he is 10 points under state treasurer Bob Casey, Jr. in Pennsylvania principally because the GOP base can’t get over the deal. . It would be irony indeed if Santorum went down to defeat in 2006 because he saved Specter, no natural ally, in 2004. And to make matters worse, as soon as this session of Congress opened, it appeared that Specter was back to his old tricks again: safely reelected he seemed to forget the deal, declaring that it was his advice that Bush not name a pro-lifer to the Supreme Court. No sooner was the remark in the media than Rove was calling Santorum: calling him any number of things.

Santorum outraged at Specter and so was Bush—but mostly at Santorum for leading him on about Specter, with dire consequences for Santorum’s own reelection in 2006. Then it appeared appeared that Specter might very well lose support of the Republican caucus for Judiciary chairman. Specter got a super dutch uncle talk from Orrin Hatch who was threatening to keep the chairmanship. And from Santorum, Lindsay Graham and the White House. When Graham grabbed Specter by the lapels in the cloakroom and lectured him in down South lexicon and Specter tried to answer, Graham said “shaddup, ah said shaddup!” Specter was convinced he had blown it and he would lose his chance for chairman. Working the phones and in private meetings, he did conspicuous penance and his chairmanship was delivered. Nobody was happy, though. But Specter is trying to keep the deal.

To keep the deal, Specter has been a confusing and often confused double agent, a renowned liberal pro-choicer while also an extremely busy 75-year-old working the back channels to conservatize the court on issues for which he has great scorn. No sooner had he apparently recovered from a desperately serious bout of cancer which took away all his hair and made him look like an advance man for a famine than he has been raising money for Sanctorum which was part of the original deal, warmly socializing with the liberals but giving conservatives a knowing wink and nod. That kind of stuff can tire a man.

Bush then named two conservative justices and Specter played the role of poker-faced presider, asking questions about Roe v. Wade but sensitive to the evil-eyes from Hatch, Graham and Texas’ John Cornyn across the room which would jerk him back on the reservation.

Specter loves to be loved, loves to be buddy-buddy with Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden and The New York Times and be true to his pro-choice faith while serving out the deal he made. And yesterday proved the deal he cut with Santorum and Bush still holds. Because Kennedy knows it, he is angered. The other day it was instructive to see Specter coaching Alito, putting honeyed words of re-interpretation in Alito’s mouth so as to make Alito palatable to liberals as Kennedy and Biden glowered. The New York Times editorially screamed at Specter yesterday but today Specter was back at it. When Kennedy showed his frustration at Specter—saying he would request an executive session—the fussy, traditionally mild-mannered chairman blew up and rapped his gavel, saying that he is the chairman and by God he decides, not Kennedy, if there will be an executive session or not.

That’ll get him another attack from The Times. In fairness to Kennedy, he said he would request it; he never meant that he, Kennedy, would call an executive session but Specter had had enough. The tension was showing. Today Specter is the new darling of the right: will be praised by the Washington Times and scored by The New York Times. What next? Will he be the poster boy for Human Events? See himself in bronze at the National Right to Life auditorium?

If Arlen Specter knows what’s good for him, he will continue on-course to become an anathema to The New York Times and his old liberal buddies and will die as the late blooming great hope of conservatism: a weird eventuality. He has a job to do. He has to get Alito confirmed. That means he has to tailor Alito’s views on torture so that they appeal to John McCain. Also Specter has to vote for Alito no matter what in the committee, even if the jurist peremptorily wipes his nose on the drapes. And then he has to steer Alito through the Senate, working his magic on Republican liberals Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and that super-flake and former coke user Lincoln Chafee which will gain him more abuse from The Times. In between times, he has to wing back to Pennsylvania to raise money and endorse Santorum. Mention making another deal to him and he may well throw up—and not from the chemo. And then, lo and behold, John Paul Stevens who is 87 years old may get shaky and step down. Then, Arlen Specter will have more work to do. And you thought being Judiciary chairman was a piece of cake.


  1. Politics makes some strange bedfellows.

  2. great story and it made great theater; I just wish we didn't have to drag nominees through all of this.