Arlen Specter, part of a vanishing breed

It’s somewhat like evolution – eventually a certain species just dies away. Perhaps the specie that former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter was most like was a chameleon. He was a sometime Democrat; a long-time Republican; and a once again Democrat. Through it all, he was a man who took the progressive point of view on almost all public issues.

Arlen Specter passed away on Sunday, October 14, 2012 at the age of 82. His evolutions from Democrat to Republican and back to Democrat truly reflect how our political system has evolved over the past half century.

Specter was born in Kansas but when he was rather young his family moved to Philadelphia. As the New York Times reports, as a young adult, Spector:

…tried to run for Philadelphia district attorney in 1965. As Mr. Specter recalled, the local Democratic chairman told him that the party did not want a “young Tom Dewey as D.A.,” a reference to the former New York governor and racket-buster Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican. So Mr. Specter ran on the Republican ticket as a Democrat. He switched his party registration after he won.

In other words, the Democratic Party machine blocked him from running for office, so he became a progressive Republican. He climbed the political ladder and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980. As an attorney with prosecutorial experience, he positioned himself to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. During those years that Republicans had a majority, he was chairman of the committee.

Among the areas in which he was progressive were:

  • He unabashedly supported Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal.
  • He denounced the Christian right as an extremist “fringe.”
  • He was a successful leader in the opposition to Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
  • He raised the standards of investigations of Supreme Court nominees.
  • He generally took progressive stands on issues of foreign affairs.

From the progressive point of view, there was one issue on which Senator Specter surprisingly joined conservatives. When President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, Specter strongly supported him, despite Thomas’ lackluster judicial record and questions about his proclivity towards sexual harrassment. Anita Hill, a co-work of Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accused Thomas of ongoing harassment. She was called before the Judiciary Committee and was treated with dignity by most members. Specter was relentless in his interrogation of Hill to the point that women’s groups, who had considered Specter an ally, never forgave him for accusing Hill of perjury.

Clarence Thomas was confirmed by the Judiciary Committee and then slid through the entire Senate by a vote of 52-48. It’s quite possible that had Senator Specter opposed his nomination that he never would have made it out of committee.

As the Times reports, “ultimately Mr. Specter expressed contrition, saying he had come to understand why Ms. Hill’s complaint of sexual harassment had “touched a raw nerve among so many women.”

The Clarence Thomas incident did not keep Specter from maintaining his progressive views on most other issues. This naturally angered many Republicans, particularly those in the Tea Party. In 2010, when Specter saw that he would have no chance of winning re-nomination in the Republican Party, he switched back to the Democratic Party. He thought that he would be a shoo-in for the Democrat’s nomination. But he didn’t have the bona fides as a long-term Democrat, so he was ultimately defeated in the Democratic primary.

He began as a Democrat and ended as one. He represented the vanishing breed of Republicans who were rational liberals and who advanced the causes of human rights and social welfare. As he passed away, so has the moderate wing of the Republican Party. We can all learn a great deal from Specter, and perhaps one day in the future, a gentleman of his ilk could once again find a home in the Republican Party. Of course, that will be the day.