Abandon ship, Arlen

Why does Specter stay in a party that's listing so far to the right?

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There he was again this week, that rascally Arlen Specter getting all mavericky.

As he has done on other notable occasions (who can forget his 11th-hour, center-stage vote blocking Robert Bork from the Supreme Court?) the Republican senator from Pennsylvania broke ranks with those that brung him. This time it was to provide a deciding vote for President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package to pass the Senate, a move that was joined by two other GOP renegades, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine.

These three kept the $789 billion plan alive. Whether this will turn out to have been heroically brave or a colossal mistake may not be known for a while, but all other Senate Republicans seem quite sure the stimulus plan is nothing short of apocalyptic.

Of course, these are the same politicians whose party led us into the abyss, so it's a little hard to take their dire predictions very seriously. It's not clear that anyone knows what will work at this point, but, as Mr. Obama noted, he who wins the election by a large margin gets to pursue his plan.

In any case, Mr. Specter's vote once again angered conservative party members who've branded him a RINO -- Republican in name only. (He's voted in favor of consumer, civil and abortion rights, a guest-worker program, increases in the minimum wage and other pro-labor policies. He also refused to cast a "guilty" vote during Bill Clinton's impeachment and expressed deep reservations about the Bush administration's politicization of the Justice Department.)

So, once again, his critics are vowing to knock him out of office by recruiting a true-blue -- or, more accurately, true-red -- righty to oppose him in the 2010 Republican primary.

Mr. Specter, who just turned 79 and has battled brain cancer in recent years, has beaten back those forces before. In 2004, he eked out a surprisingly narrow victory over uber-conservative Pat Toomey, thanks in part to a last-minute endorsement by President Bush. The senator no doubt expects to triumph again over any future opponents, and he has been busy raising the kind of money that tends to scare off potential challengers.

But all of that begs the question: Why bother fighting to stay in a party that seems determined to self-destruct, marching ever rightward even as the country moves in the opposite direction?

Does the senator really feel he still belongs in a group that has purged so many moderates from its ranks, that considers it apostasy to work with majority Democrats in addressing the worst economic train wreck since the Great Depression?

Is it possible the time has come for Mr. Specter to disassociate himself from the flaming-torches-and-pitchforks crowd? Should he, at long last, switch allegiance, if not to the Democratic party then to run as an Independent?

As Bill George, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, noted in a recent phone conversation, "Santorism is dead in Pennsylvania. Ultra-conservatism is dead in Pennsylvania, as we saw from the results of the last election."

"Dead" is probably too strong a word; "seriously wounded" is more like it.

The country's post-election map illustrated the extent of voter rebellion against the party in power for the last eight years, to the point that even a moderate Republican member of Congress like Chris Shays of Connecticut was defeated by a Democratic challenger. Meanwhile, as GOP moderates in swing-ish districts get knocked off, the party grows more and more conservative.

So, while it remains unlikely that the wily Mr. Specter -- the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history -- would lose the Republican nomination, it's also not impossible, given the state's closed primary system and the current makeup of the party.

It's one thing for a comedian like Groucho Marx to want to join only those clubs that wouldn't have him as a member. You'd think that a politician would prefer to have more affinity with his own colleagues.

It's not likely Mr. Specter would want to become a Democrat again, having left the fold for the GOP more than 40 years ago. Nor is it clear that he'd be the Dems' first choice for senator over other long-time party members.

Then there's the fact that a lot of Democratic women (and Republican women, for that matter) still haven't forgiven him for mauling Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings, viewed by many as penance to the right wing for his vote against Mr. Bork. Clearly, the man is just as willing to cross liberals (he's pro-death penalty and against most gun control) as he is to antagonize conservatives.

So why not become an Independent? It worked for Joe Lieberman. The long-time Connecticut Democrat's hard-line on the Iraq war cost him the party's nomination in 2006, so he ran with an "I" after his name and won. Mr. Specter could probably pull off the same trick with the help of moderate voters across party lines -- especially if the Democrats wind up running a social conservative.

Whether he'd go as far as Mr. Lieberman in turning against his former colleagues is another matter. You wouldn't think so, but hell hath no fury like a senator scorned.

The GOP has been moving steadily to the right since the Reagan administration, and most Republican pols moved with it. If Mr. Specter is holding on to his membership in hopes of bringing his party back to its senses, well, that ship has sailed. It's not too late to jump.

Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette ( skalson@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1610).


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