Summer 2010

Of Men, Myths, and Legends:
End of the Arlen Specter Era

Elizabeth Ross-Harrison

On Thursday, April 4, 1991, I was standing in the hallway outside the Student Union office at Westmoreland County Community College, straining to hear the news reports coming out of Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania. There had been an air tragedy involving a plane and helicopter, the crash affecting a local elementary school. Two children died that day, and along with them, so did Senator H. John Heinz. In May of 1976, Heinz had defeated Arlen Specter in the Republican primary, and ended up with a seat in the Senate until his death on that April day.

Back when Heinz defeated Specter, it could have been argued that Specter was just a ladder-climber. He was after an office – any office would do, or so it seemed. After the 1976 defeat, he tried his hand at getting into the Governor's mansion, but was defeated by Dick Thornburgh. But that didn't discourage him, and he reached his Senatorial aspirations in 1980. The irony is that he started his journey as a Democrat running on the Republican ticket for the District Attorney of Philadelphia. Or, if you're a purist, it all started during the Warren Commission and the Magic Bullet Theory.

Specter the man, was a smart enough politician even in his early years, to understand that in Pennsylvania politics, particularly in Philadelphia, while the letter after one's name on the ballot can decide a race, there's still the occasional situation where the people ignore it, en masse. That's particularly true when generally moderate candidates are involved. However, Specter was not a typical Democrat, and the switch to Republican was quite appropriate. His views on gun control and the death penalty, at the very least earned him either a firmly Republican pedigree, or an extremely conservative Democratic one. That is taking into account the state of the political spectrum in the 1960's to 1970's. Times have changed, and the spectrum has shifted considerably since then.

The “true” Republicans of that era weren't hanging off the edge of the far right end of the spectrum as they are now. In fact, back then, one never really heard anyone mention the idea that anyone shouldn't belong in one party or the other because of differences of opinions with party leadership. Up through the Reagan years, the GOP was a big tent party, and Specter had the inimitable gall to point that out in radical fashion by jumping ship. Arguments have been made that he did it to save his political career, but his claims that the GOP is no longer “his” party ring true. There is no room in the GOP today for Specter, and if Heinz were still alive, he would undoubtedly feel the same.

But I suspect that the legend of Specter will be found years from now, perhaps years after I'm dead and gone. Hypocrisy has been the refrain from many directions where the GOP is concerned, primarily because of the most radical end claiming control of the party. A particularly insidious form of this was in the FISA procedures – illegal wire-tapping and management of captured accused terrorists – and in the rampant nature of Signing Statements during the Bush administration. Traditionally, conservatives and the GOP have been champions of protecting personal freedoms, so many of the laws enacted in response to 9/11 have been in direct opposition to those values. While the argument has been made that such concessions are necessary to secure our citizens, it is unrealistic to accept that justification. It is never a good idea to surrender rights regardless of the reasons.

Couple this with the increased frequency of Signing Statements – something that has apparently carried over at least to some extent to the Obama Presidency – and we have been witnessing something that will go down in history. Perhaps it could reach a level of infamy that would surpass that of the attack on Pearl Harbor. And there lies the potential for Specter to make his mark on history.

His political career has ended because he is no longer trusted or liked enough by either side. He's being blamed for his situation, but we are witnessing it now. Perhaps it won't be so cut and dry to future generations. Claiming that the GOP has shifted far to the right over the past 20 years is like Quixote tilting at his windmills – those that choose to draw attention to the situation are marginalized, and accused of being either alarmists if from the left, or not “true” conservatives if from the not-so-radical-right. Even though we've seen this before – ages of men falling prey to radical religiosity and superstition to the exclusion of science and common sense – unfortunately, because we are living through it as opposed to studying it as a part of our collective pasts, we are unlikely to be able to do anything to stop it. It would be nice to think that mankind can learn from past mistakes, but sadly, that rarely is the truth. So while Specter may be universally disliked or distrusted now, he may very well end up being seen by historians of the future as a messenger to a deaf populous, warning of impending danger from his former colleagues.

Dedicated to my husband, James Allen Harrison, for being a true believer in the GOP, and occasionally believing in me.