Switch sides, Sen. Specter
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The continuing political saga of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter presents the voters of the commonwealth, as well as the political geniuses in Washington, significant problems.
Mr. Specter, 79, will be up for reelection for his sixth term next year. He will be opposed in the Republican primary, notably by former U.S. Rep. Patrick Toomey, a right-wing investment banker. Mr. Toomey is predicted to defeat Mr. Specter in the primary because Mr. Specter's collection of independent positions has probably stacked up too many Republican votes against him. These include a key vote with the Democrats for passage of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package.
This probably means for the Republicans the loss of Mr. Specter's seat to the Democrats in the November 2010 general election. Mr. Specter calls Republicans who seek to eliminate him in the primary "cannibals," who insist on being "right" rather than winning.
The other specter out there is the possibility that the senator could change parties, crossing the aisle to match his wayward political views with his party affiliation. Assuming that the defeated candidate in the Minnesota Senate race, Norm Coleman, finally must acknowledge his loss to Al Franken, giving the Democrats 59 votes in the Senate, a Specter crossover would give the Democrats and their independent allies a virtually filibuster-proof 60 seats.
The senator has been invited to switch sides by a panoply of Democratic stars, who include Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. But two things stop him, it appears.
First, he thinks of himself as a Republican, of the reasonable, moderate type that included such people as the late Sen. John Heinz. Asked if he will change parties, his answer at this point is a flat "no."
The second barrier is that he believes in the importance of a two-party system, and he is not yet ready to give up on the Republican Party as the second party, in spite of its death-spiral drive for exotic purity.
Still, there would be no satisfaction in seeing a great senator, who has served Pennsylvania in a long career, defeated by a lightweight ideologue in the nasty, personal campaign that this one already has become.
So how does it get fixed? Mr. Specter changes party now, then the Republican Party chooses Mr. Toomey. As soon as a vacancy occurs on the U.S. Supreme Court, expected soon, Mr. Obama nominates Mr. Specter. Apart from more than 28 years' experience as senator, Mr. Specter also has served as a district attorney and an assistant district attorney.
Even though the Republicans in the Senate would gnash their teeth at his defection, the Democrats would have the votes to confirm him and some GOP senators likely would vote for their former colleague, in spite of his apostasy.
There will be those who will say sotto voce that Mr. Specter is too old at 79 to be named as a justice. I would disagree. I just watched him last week face more than an hour of vigorous questioning from the Post-Gazette editorial board. He is sharp as a tack, speaking fluently of Washington and local political affairs while drawing judiciously and with humor from U.S. historical experience and precedents.
If Mr. Obama nominates Mr. Specter for the Supreme Court, Mr. Rendell could name a Democrat to take his place in the Senate, retaining the Democrats' 60 votes -- to assure Mr. Specter's confirmation, the approval of other parts of Mr. Obama's program, and, if Mr. Rendell chooses well, the retention of the seat for the Democrats in November 2010.
Pennsylvania would win in that it would be spared the spectacle of watching Mr. Specter get gored by a right-wing ideologue. And both of its senators would then vote mostly with the president as he attacks the major stack of problems he has taken on.
The United States also would win in that Mr. Specter would make an excellent Supreme Court justice. Throughout his career he has been noted for his independence of thought, for his balanced, evenhanded, weighing-all-arguments approach to issues, an ideal viewpoint for the high court.
The first time I met Mr. Specter was in the 1980s as the state department desk officer for Rhodesia. The Reagan administration was trying to repeal the Byrd Amendment, which had America importing chrome from Rhodesia in opposition to most of the rest of the world.
Mr. Specter was representing a steel state and was not inclined to vote on the issue with the Republican president. I was told before seeing him that he was hard-minded and sometimes short-tempered. Nonetheless, he heard out the State Department argument, made no commitment and eventually avoided a vote. But he was fair and did not take the obvious position automatically. He was judicious.
Mr. Specter is a class act. His career as a statesman should end with laurels, not in an episode of Republican Party self-immolation. The sequence of events I suggest could have that desirable result.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Apr. 28, 2009) This Dan Simpson's column as originally published Apr. 22, 2009 cited the wrong time period for when he met as a State Department representative with Sen. Arlen Specter to discuss the chrome trade in Africa. The meeting occured in the 1980s during the Reagan administration.
First Published April 22, 2009 12:00 am