Arlen Specter: The Pennsylvania Perspective

I was listening to Jim Roddey, Republican leader and Chief Executive of Allegheny County from 2000-2004 yesterday, reacting to the news that Arlen Specter was changing party affiliation. It struck me that the one aspect of the story that the national media was ignoring was how Arlen Specter had let down many of his friends and supporters. There are many moderate Republicans in Pennsylvania, probably not enough for Specter to have won his primary next year against fire-eater Pat Toomey of the Club for Growth, but certainly enough to have had a chance of victory and to have made a decent showing.

More important than the political calculation, however, is the fact that Specter really is a moderate Republican. He is not really a Democrat. This is the man who gave us Justice Thomas, after all. And his opposition to parts of the Employee Free Choice Act was probably genuine, even if also politically motivated.

As a moderate Republican, Specter had something to say. His fight against Toomey was worth fighting. As a turncoat Democrat, he is just another vote.

Specter's position could have been like that of our late-Governor, Bob Casey, an ardently pro-life Democrat. He did not leave the Democratic Party, but stayed because he shared so much of the Party's other commitments. And in staying, he helped change the Democratic Party's approaches to, and thinking about, abortion.

Differences such as Casey's from other Democrats and Specter's from other Republicans help democracy flourish because the opposing political parties do not become monolithic and intractable. Specter, in playing his dishonorable role for mere political survival, has lost his chance of playing a worthy and important role in our nation's history.