Insert “Specter is Haunting ____” Pun Here

April 29, 2009 at 8:58 pm (By Miles Lascaux)

I’m embarrassed to admit that Arlen Specter has always been pretty much my idea of what a modern U.S. Senator should be. As a lifelong Pennsylvanian, I’ve had a chance to vote for him every time, and I never passed it up.

Mind you, I never did it with enthusiasm, either. He’s an arrogant man who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. He’s not likeable. Well, so what? There are certain job categories that ought not to be filled based on likeability. Senator is one of them.

But it makes him a poor patron saint. Which is why Republicans who are of an independent stripe, lik me, probably won’t ever have one of those.

His switch of party means nothing, in terms of his politics. He’ll keep voting the same way. I am sure he realizes he is in his last years, so he will pursue his remaining agendas — most of them harmless or beneficial to the nation as a whole — using the power of his political fulcrum.

He switched to get re-elected. He knows this state from stem to stern, having long ago transcended Philadelphia. Only Tom Ridge could stop him now.

When the Senate was set up, it was meant to be in large part above the fray and the popular tumult. The section of the Federalist devoted to it (about #62 through #69, I think) gives me the strong impression that Hamilton and Madison would have wanted it kept from the sweaty hands of party machines. They made no explicit mention of party machines because there were none then.

Specter, Mike Mansfield, Calhoun, that sort of person, who is secure enough and ornery enough to do and say what he senses is right. Who has devoted his leisure not to getting re-elected every few months, but to deepening the study of law and government and humankind. Who has an eye on the long-range good of the country, not the expedience of the party.

Do they all fail at that ideal? Of course! That’s the point of the Constitution. We’re not electing saints or philosophers. If there’s one thing the Founders knew, that was it. Everything in balance. The idea was to get great work out of elected men while they were chasing their venal and selfish ambitions. It was a good trick, while it lasted.

-Miles Lascaux


  1. Ennui said,

    Specter as the heir to Calhoun, eh?

    Sorry for the shameless context ripping, seeing those two names in the same sentence was too good to pass up (but come to think of it, Calhoun did do a bit of party hopping himself, didn’t he?).

    I actually had two serious points related to your post:
    1. I assert that when you compare the oratory in the Senate from the founding to the civil war with everything that has come since, well, there is simply no comparison (speaking of Calhoun, his valedictory on the Compromise of 1850 should not be missed – like a pilot calmly ordering instructions on a plane that’s going down – all the more patient and careful because there’s no time left for mistakes).

    We can’t even blame the the decline in oratory on structural changes like the 17th Amendment – I don’t think that anyone would hold up Gilded Age oratory as an example to follow – at least I’ve never seen anyone make the case. What do you think accounts for that? Has something in the founding model of the Senate been lost, or is it just a general coarsening of the culture (or is my assertion wrong)? I don’t have a pet answer in mind here. In fact, I think that it make an interesting thesis for someone.

    2. Here’s a morbid thought: has anyone looked at the rate of party hopping in the Senate over time (I’m certain someone has)? There was a lot of party hopping (and party collapse/birth) before the Civil War. Before WWII as well? That would be interesting to look at. It just seems as though there’s been a lot more of that, particularly in the Senate, over the past few years (Jeffords, Lieberman (sort of), Spector, and at least one other I can’t remember)? Forgive me for the (politically) apocalyptic implication of this line of questioning. I’ve sort of fallen under the spell of the guys that wrote “Generations” and “The Fourth Turning.” They have a cyclical theory of history (theorizing in the grand sense where you have one independent variable that drives all the others) and it’s damned compelling on a casual level. They don’t see pleasant things ahead. Which fits my mood to a tee.

  2. Rod said,

    I think the Senate was conceived in some ways to be our equivalent to the House of Lords – a place where gentlemen would serve based on general recognition of their social rank or reputation for probity. The House of Representatives was supposed to be where the real political action would be – the only body that could initiate appropriations bills – the equivalent of the House of Commons. At some point, I think around the time direct election began, the system shifted.

    I don’t know whether Mr. Specter is the kind of above-the-fray speaker of truth (at least as he sees it) Miles says he is. I’m an anti-abortion guy who is a registered Democrat, so I am familiar with the political wilderness of being a square peg in a round hole, and Spectrer seems, at a minimum, to be that.

    One of the most interesting “speak his mind” politicians was Barry Goldwater after he lost the Presidential election and returned to the Senate. George McGovern has taken a positions which would surprise us, such as anti card check. It seems nothing is quite as liberating as realizing you will not reach your ultimate ambition.

  3. amba12 said,

    It’s rare to hear someone speak well of Specter these days. The general cynical rap is that switching parties is an expedient betrayal, undying ambition disguised as principle. Partisanship has almost become the new patriotism — being “above party” has become a synonym for being wishy-washy and/or opportunistic.

    I can’t keep out the foreground of my view of Specter his toughness and lack of vanity in continuing to work, haggard and sans hair, clear through chemotherapy. And he’s fought off cancer what, two or three times? And had a bypass as well? I admire that no end, even if it was orneriness or ambition driving it. It kind of blinds me to the rest.

  4. amba12 said,

    Ennui, you’re suggesting that outbreaks of party-switching are harbingers of war? Was there a period where there was an outbreak of party-switching NOT followed by an apocalyptic war?

    That said, I tend to share your mood. Although whatever it is (depending on how bad it is) may affect me less than most. I’ve been so far underwater for so long . . . and damned if it isn’t a good place to weather storms.

  5. PatHMV said,

    I’m sorry, I’m getting tired of this Specter near-worship by moderates. He faced a tough primary fight in 2004 against Pat Toomey (the same guy threatening him now), and national Republicans, despite his squishiness on MANY Republican issues, exerted substantial political capital to help him survive that fight, then rewarded him with the position of Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As the judiciary is at the heart of many social conservatives concerns, this was not taken well by a lot of rank and file Republicans, but people mostly accepted it on the “big tent” theory and the theory that they were better off with a weak Republican than a strong Democrat.

    Now, 5 years later, Specter faces another primary battle against the same guy (indicating he didn’t exactly reach out to his Republican constituents after the last race), and polls show that he was likely to lose the primary. So what does he do? He abandons the party machinery that helped him so much last time. In doing so, he tells a blatant lie, that he was leaving because the GOP had moved to far to the right. Does anybody seriously want to claim that the GOP is more to the right NOW than in 2004? Please. He left for political expedience, to help boost his personal chances for reelection, and that’s it.

    And what is the response of this supposed rabid right party? At the moment, it seems the leadership of the party is looking at supporting the woefully unqualified but “moderate” Tom Ridge over the candidate who appears to have the support of the Republicans in Pennsylvania itself, Pat Toomey. Yeah, that’s some far-right party machinery there.

  6. Ennui said,


    I was speculating (wildly) that periods of deep political crisis would be preceded by increased party switching.

    The first question would be, is there really an increase in party switching?

    The Senate web site (only goes back to 1890) lists a toal of 20 changes (+1 for Specter), 3 changes in the 90s, and 2 since 2000 (+1 for Specter). So (dividing the total number of switches by the number of years) for the entire period from 1890 to now, an average of .1765 Senators has changed parties each year (or, on average, a Senator switched parties every 5.67 years). Doing the same arithmetic from 1995 gives us .4286 Senators a year switching parties (or, on average, a Senator switched every 2.33 years) – so it does look like the rate has increased. Whatever it means, that’s kind of interesting.

    For what it’s worth, looking over their list, it doesn’t look like the Depression/WWII era had a marked increase in party switching. I hope that this is related enough not to constitute thread crapping.

  7. Callimachus said,

    Various responses:

    –Never called Specter the heir to Calhoun. Never called him an above-the-fray speaker of truth, only a follower of his own drummer, which has the drumstick of conscience in one hand and ambition in the other.

    “I don’t think that anyone would hold up Gilded Age oratory as an example to follow – at least I’ve never seen anyone make the case.”

    –try Robert G. Ingersoll.

    “What do you think accounts for that?”

    –replacement of private academies by public school systems, then the rise of mass media, further expansion of the franchise, then floods of non-English-speaking immigrant voting blocks, for a start. It gets going in earnest after 1900.

    “has anyone looked at the rate of party hopping in the Senate over time …”

    –national political parties barely existed at the state level or the local level until after the CW. Outside Washington, they more or less disappeared between presidential elections. Senators were chosen by the state governments. On the whole, the period from 1812 to 1860 was characterized by loyalty to men or causes, not to parties.

    “I think the Senate was conceived in some ways to be our equivalent to the House of Lords”

    –yes, quite. The states = the peerage.

    “Now, 5 years later, Specter faces another primary battle against the same guy (indicating he didn’t exactly reach out to his Republican constituents after the last race),”

    — Not entirely accurate. The Republican consituency in Pennsylvania has been rapidly changing with the collapse of the Big Tent over the party as it has been run by the people who put George W. Bush in office. The weight that held the GOP in the balance of power (between Philly/Pgh. and Deer Hunter country) was in the suburbs, where a lot of RINOs and South Park Republicans, like me, clustered. They already have crossed over. National GOP, not state GOP, stank them out. Specter is simply following them.

  8. Simon said,

    Well, he invented the magic bullet theory and fought Robert Bork’s nomination. The very model of a modern U.S. Senator.

    As to “[w]hen the Senate was set up, it was meant to be in large part above the fray and the popular tumult.” Indeed, which is why it was not elected directly by the people. When that was undone – when the institutional representation fo the states qua states left the federal government – things began to go wrong.

  9. Icepick said,

    He’s an arrogant man who doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

    Then how is it that he can suffer his own company?

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