Fighting moderate: Specter's independence served Pennsylvania well

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Arlen Specter, who died Sunday at the age of 82, was a man for all seasons -- except, sadly, the last one that saw his political career unravel. In his five terms as a U.S. senator, the most of anyone from Pennsylvania, he was what was once common: a moderate, independent-minded Republican.

That old-fashioned archetype could find no home in the new, hyper-partisan political landscape, where compromise was seen as weakness, where bipartisanship seemed disloyal, where ideology mattered more than intelligence. In the end, Sen. Specter's virtues became his liabilities.

By the autumn of his career, Sen. Specter found himself viewed as an anachronism, and worse yet, a Washington insider in the Tea Party age. The deft politician who had survived many political challenges couldn't survive the great swing to the right that had purged his party of those in the moderate middle.

Knowing that he would probably lose a primary challenge rematch to Pat Toomey in 2010, Sen. Specter switched to the Democratic Party in April 2009. Although he had voted for President Barack Obama's stimulus plan, the Democrats were no more willing than Republicans to have a senator not sufficiently steeped in their positions and attitudes. He lost the primary to Joe Sestak, who lost in the general election to now Sen. Toomey.

But this final chapter will be remembered less than the years when Sen. Specter helped to hold the center firm for the good of Pennsylvania and the nation. As a former prosecutor, he was among the last of the fighting moderates. His dedication, hard work, common-sensical approach and political savvy were a greater testament to his work, which was studded by many memorable moments.

Whether it was service on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his shrewd questioning of nominees before the Senate Judiciary Committee (which he eventually chaired) or his quirky but decent-minded vote of "not proven" in the Clinton impeachment trial, Sen. Specter was a Republican who was his own man -- one who put the nation's interest over the party line and was as much for the steelworker as the stockbroker.

It is often said in memorials to a person that we will never see the likes of him again. With Arlen Specter, it rings true. Until undone by a political climate that seeks only black and white opinions, Sen. Specter dazzled with his coat of many colors.

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