Arlen Specter: no shoo-in for Democrats

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Sen. Arlen Specter doesn't want Democrats to get the wrong idea about him just because he jumped from the burning ship that is the Republican Party last week.

Sure, he wanted to spare himself a bruising primary battle with Pat Toomey, but Mr. Specter insists principle was as much a part of his calculation as a bid for naked self-preservation.

"My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for Democrats than I have been for Republicans," Mr. Specter said, confirming the truth of Groucho Marx's quip that he didn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

"Unlike Sen. [James] Jeffords' switch, which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote [for the Democratic majority]," Mr. Specter said.

Over the weekend, the 79-year-old senator went on "Meet the Press" to make clear that the gratitude he has for the Democratic Party for taking him in from the wilderness has its limits. "I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat," he told David Gregory. "I did not say that."

Still, even that note of gracelessness paled in comparison to what Mr. Specter had to say about the rubes in the GOP who voted for him all those years: "I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Republican primary electorate, not prepared to have that record decided by that jury."

Of course not. That would be democracy -- and we can't have that around here. Given Arlen Specter's undiminished level of mercenary cynicism, it's easy to see why some Republicans have taken to calling him "Benedict Arlen."

Still, such bluntness is refreshing in a politician. It seems only fair that the Democratic electorate return the favor before things get out of hand and feelings are hurt during the Democratic primary next year.

Given the Democratic hierarchy's shameless tolerance for duplicity and deal-making, it is more than likely that Mr. Specter is operating under the impression that all he needs is the Obama White House, the Democratic leadership in both houses and Gov. Ed Rendell's blessing to secure the party nomination.

Mr. Specter has to be heartened by the latest Quinnipiac poll that has him trouncing Pat Toomey in a head-to-head Senate race, 53 to 33 percent. The same poll has the senator beating Mr. Toomey 85 to 4 percent just among Democrats and 45 to 36 percent among independents.

The only Republican who has a chance of making the newly minted Democrat breathe hard is former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. According to the Quinnipiac poll, Mr. Specter barely ekes out a 46 to 43 percent victory over the former homeland security director if they meet in the general election. Still, Mr. Specter probably likes those odds, assuming he is tapped as the Democratic nominee.

Had he remained in the Republican caucus, Mr. Toomey would have claimed the wily politician's scalp, for sure. That's the political reality Mr. Specter wrestled with last week when he returned to the party he abandoned in 1966.

From where this skeptical Democrat sits, it sure looks like Mr. Specter needs the Democratic Party far more than the party needs him. Meanwhile, he's made it clear that he's not going to be a vote the Democrats can necessarily count on to get President Obama's agenda passed.

It certainly is Mr. Specter's prerogative to continue to ooze contrariness if he wants to, but why should ordinary Democrats feel even nominally obligated to subsidize his eccentricity with our hard-earned votes? What's wrong with supporting a Democrat in the 2010 primary who subscribes to the platform and values of the party?

In three decades I've been a registered voter, I've never pulled the lever for Arlen Specter, so I need a compelling reason to start now. There are a whole lot of Democrats I'm inclined to support before tossing my vote away on a man who holds his nose whenever he talks about the Democratic Party.

To paraphrase Arlen Specter himself -- his change in party affiliation doesn't mean that registered Democrats are obligated to fall in line. If he can't vote for the Employee Free Choice Act or the bankruptcy reform bill without violating his conscience, there's no reason that he should be the party's nominee.

Any Pennsylvania Democrat can beat Pat Toomey. There's no reason to sell our souls to Arlen Specter to do that.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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