September 1, 2003
THE AWFUL SPECTER OF ANOTHER TERM
Conservatives need a friend in Pennsylvania
JOHN J. MILLER
“I’ll go straight to the point,” said Arlen Specter, shortly after sitting down to dinner with Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation in March. “I’ve got a primary and I’m being hit from the right. I want your support.”
The Republican senator from Pennsylvania wasn’t going to get it merely by breaking bread. Says Weyrich: “I told him I was disgusted with how he comes around just before his elections and asks for conservative endorsements, when we all know he won’t give us the time of day later on.” In years past, Weyrich has traveled to Specter’s home turf and urged conservatives to stick with one of the GOP’s most liberal members. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do this time.”
The choice for Weyrich — and the whole conservative movement — is whether to make another uneasy peace with Specter in the prudential belief that no party holding a one-seat majority in the Senate should dump an incumbent who has won four previous elections in a swing state. The alternative is to rally behind Pat Toomey, an impressive congressman from Allentown who has launched an energetic primary bid against the man who has done more to frustrate conservative goals over the years than perhaps any other member of his caucus. Specter may not be the most unreliable GOP senator — he faces strong competition in that category from Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island — but he is almost certainly the most harmful, because he is smart, ruthless, and influential.
Weyrich’s complaint is a common one: Specter votes like a Democrat until late in his term, when he remembers that he will need at least some conservatives on his side if he’s going to win another six years. “Arlen is not a team player, but we’re getting a little more cooperation out of him this year,” says one GOP senator. In 2001, for instance, Specter was in his usual form, helping slash the Bush administration’s tax cuts by $250 billion. This year, however, he embraced the president’s tax-relief proposals early on. “There’s more reason for an economic stimulus now,” he says. Skeptics think it’s not the economy he’s trying to jump-start as much as it is his Republican base — which he’ll need in next April’s primary.
The 73-year-old Specter is one of the Senate’s best-known but least-liked members. His notoriety dates back to 1964, when, as a young lawyer serving on the Warren Commission, he invented the “single-bullet theory” to explain how Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy. Ever since, conspiracy groupies have blamed him for a major cover-up. In Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, Kevin Costner’s character labels Specter “an ambitious junior counselor” behind “one of the grossest lies ever forced on the American people.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have much better reasons for disliking him: They regard Specter as one of the prickliest pols in Congress — a humorless man who is cold to colleagues and cruel to staff. Late one night several years ago, Senate majority leader Trent Lott needed Specter to sign off on an appropriations bill. Specter agreed to do it, for a price: Lott would have to attend two fundraisers in Pennsylvania. Lott made the deal, but this sort of legislative hostage-taking doesn’t win fans. “There are two kinds of senators: Republicans who don’t like Specter and Democrats who don’t like Specter,” says a former leadership aide. In a Washingtonian magazine survey, Hill staffers rated him the Senate’s meanest member. This has given rise to one of Specter’s nicknames: Snarlin’ Arlen.
Being “mean” isn’t necessarily a bad quality in a politician. When Weyrich stumped for Specter in 1992, he made a simple point to his conservative listeners: “Arlen Specter is a jerk, but he’s our jerk.” A former Senate staffer puts it this way: “If there’s a tough debate going on, you definitely want Specter on your side.”
The problem for conservatives is that Specter isn’t their jerk nearly enough. He is an abortion-rights absolutist, a dogged advocate of racial preferences, a bitter foe of tort reform, a firm friend of the International Criminal Court — the list is long. When Citizens Against Government Waste recently listed Specter in its “Pig Book” as one of the Senate’s most profligate spenders, he shot back: “If they left me out, I’d be worried.” In 1995, Specter briefly ran for president and pursued the unique strategy of attacking the base of his own party: His announcement speech lobbed a grenade at “the intolerant Right.” After pressing this theme for several months, one poll showed him attracting support from a grand total of 1 percent of Republicans. The senator’s lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 42 percent (Pat Toomey’s is 97).
In July, Specter disappointed conservatives yet again when he blocked a school-choice proposal that would have granted vouchers to 2,000 poor students in the District of Columbia. Prominent Democrats, including D.C. mayor Anthony Williams and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, support the plan. So did Specter six years ago, when he voted in favor of a similar measure. “I’ve regretted it ever since,” he now says. “I believe school choice violates the separation of church and state. It’s unconstitutional.” But didn’t the Supreme Court rule otherwise last year? “It was a 5-4 decision. The court may change its mind.” Specter’s own children attended private school in Philadelphia. “They didn’t have access to a good public school,” he explains. So what would he say to a mother in D.C. who insists that her kids don’t have access to a good public school either? “There are charter schools available. I’ve led the way to improve the quality of education in America.”
Specter’s biggest impact probably has come on the Judiciary Committee. That makes sense, because he was a prominent lawyer before arriving in Washington. In addition to his work on the Warren Commission, he was twice elected district attorney in Philadelphia, where he earned a tough-on-crime reputation. On the Judiciary Committee, he has been tough on Republican judicial nominees. In 1986, Ronald Reagan selected Jeff Sessions of Alabama for the federal bench, but Specter joined his Democratic colleagues in defeating the nomination — it was only the second time the Judiciary Committee had turned down a nominee since the FDR era. Attorney general Ed Meese called it “an appalling surrender to the politics of ideology.” Sessions didn’t vanish from public life; in 1996, he was elected to the Senate. Now he sits with Specter on the Judiciary Committee. The two men don’t talk about what passed between them 17 years ago, but Specter admits he made a mistake: “I’ve gotten to know him. I regret my vote.”
Specter doesn’t regret a more famous vote that took place the following year, on the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. This was a watershed moment in Washington politics, when left-wing histrionics began to play a leading role in judicial confirmations — and the term “borking” was born. Bork had an impeccable record as a law professor and judge, but the debate over his nomination was dominated by the fevered rhetoric of his enemies, who said that confirming him would condemn women to back-alley abortions and blacks to segregated lunch counters. Fresh from his first re-election a few months earlier, Specter couldn’t make up his mind about what to do. He questioned Bork for hours in his private chambers and at public hearings. In the end, he decided to vote against confirmation. “He called and said that he couldn’t be sure about me,” says Bork. “I’ve never known what he meant by that.” Specter’s announcement doomed the nomination. As Bork lobbyist Tom Korologos put it at the time: “Specter hit the game-winning RBI.” Conservatives, of course, resent that he was batting for the wrong team.
Specter likes to think that he redeemed himself in the eyes of the Right four years later, when he was a strong defender of embattled nominee Clarence Thomas. With his next election a year away, he was indeed looking to win points with the Right. His strong prosecutorial skills became an important asset to Thomas, in hearings that polarized the country even more than Bork’s had. It is possible to believe that without Specter’s aggressive interrogation of Anita Hill, including his accusation that she may have committed perjury, Thomas would not have been confirmed.
Yet Specter wasted little time in distancing himself from the man he helped elevate. He has described the Thomas-Hill episode as a kind of sensitivity seminar on sexual harassment: “The hearings were a learning experience for me and, for that matter, for America, too.” He has also expressed his “disappointment” in Thomas’s performance on the Supreme Court. Specter refuses to use the same word today, though he’s clearly not comfortable with Thomas’s conservative record. “He’s grown a lot in the last twelve years,” says the senator. But Specter still won’t commit to voting for Thomas if he were nominated as Chief Justice. “I’d want to think about that,” he says. What about Antonin Scalia for chief justice? “I’d want to think about that, too.”
The impeachment trial of Bill Clinton occurred before the full Senate rather than the Judiciary Committee, but many people believed Specter again would play a memorable role. And in fact he did, though his performance was most noteworthy for its weirdness. Senators were supposed to determine whether Clinton was “guilty” or “not guilty” of impeachable crimes. Specter, however, wanted a third option: “Under Scottish law, there are three possible verdicts: ‘guilty,’ ‘not guilty,’ and ‘not proven.'” He said that the president had not received a proper trial, in the sense that no witnesses were called — and therefore senators didn’t have enough information to convict. When Specter announced “not proven” during the roll call, Chief Justice William Rehnquist ordered his verdict to be recorded as “not guilty.” Specter continued to claim that the distinction was meaningful, and suggested that perhaps Clinton should face a criminal trial in an actual court after leaving office. Yet he clearly doesn’t have a low opinion of the former president; two pictures of Clinton decorate the foyer of Specter’s Senate office.
During the George W. Bush administration, Specter has supported most of the president’s picks for the federal bench. In May, however, he forced the Judiciary Committee to send the nomination of Leon Holmes to the Senate floor without a recommendation — an embarrassing setback for the White House. (As of this writing, there still hasn’t been a floor vote on Holmes.) In July, he voted to approve Bill Pryor’s nomination, but not before announcing that he might change his mind and vote against Pryor on the Senate floor.
This behavior is no surprise, though it would take on added significance if Specter were to become the next chairman of the Judiciary Committee, as he is now in line to do. Orrin Hatch of Utah is the current chairman, but he’s term-limited in that position. Next comes Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who isn’t expected to give up his control of the powerful Finance Committee. After him sits Specter, who has wanted the top job at Judiciary for years. “There’s a lot I would like to do,” he says, citing violent crime, antitrust law, and privacy as leading concerns. Several of his colleagues on the committee, however, are worried about the prospect of a Chairman Specter in 2005. “He could take the committee in a more liberal direction,” says one of them. “It would definitely be a challenge.”
Perhaps this is the clinching argument against Specter: He may in fact be the GOP’s best bet for holding Pennsylvania’s Senate seat, but his re-election also represents the best shot liberals have for influencing an important committee in a Senate they don’t otherwise control. What’s more, if Specter wins a fifth term in 2004, he’ll be 80 years old in 2010 and perhaps ready to retire. If he knows he doesn’t have to face voters again, conservatives may not even get the one or two years of leverage over him they’ve come to expect.
Specter’s Pennsylvania colleague Rick Santorum, a committed conservative, supports Specter over Pat Toomey. “There’s no question that Arlen’s an independent guy, but he also understands the concept of team,” says Santorum. “This race could draw resources away from other states, where there’s a big difference between a Democrat and a Republican rather than a small one between Specter and Toomey.” This party-line loyalty is remarkable, because Specter tried to complicate Santorum’s first Senate primary by recruiting a pro-abortion woman to run against him. His first choice was Teresa Heinz, widow of the late Republican senator John Heinz (and now the wife of John Kerry). When she said no, Specter turned to state auditor Barbara Hafer, who looked like a candidate for a few weeks but didn’t get in. Specter was forced to abandon his efforts. Santorum captured the GOP nod and won the general election — showing that true-blue conservatives can prevail in Pennsylvania if they invigorate conservatives and run respectably among the state’s many Reagan Democrats.
Anybody launching a primary challenge against an incumbent faces long odds, but Toomey is optimistic. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I weren’t convinced I could win,” he says. Specter is taking the primary seriously, which is good news and bad news for Toomey: good because it suggests that Specter really does feel vulnerable, bad because Specter won’t fall victim to Lazy Incumbent Syndrome. At the end of June, Specter had nearly $9 million in the bank, compared to about $1.5 million for Toomey. “I won’t be out-hustled,” says the senator.
Yet the 41-year-old congressman remains confident. “I never thought I was going to raise more money than Arlen Specter,” he says. “But I am going to raise enough to get out my message.” Most experts think he’ll need at least $4 million to have a real chance to win. He may yet succeed: In 1998, Specter faced two nameless primary opponents who spent next to nothing on their campaigns, and they attracted a combined 33 percent of the vote. This suggests that Toomey — not an unknown, but a conservative standout in the House who has won three elections in a Democratic-leaning district — begins with one-third of Republicans already in his pocket. He will only go up from there. And nobody should regard Specter as invincible in the general election: In 1992, Lynn Yeakel came out of nowhere and almost beat him, holding Specter to 49 percent of the electorate and drawing 46 percent for herself.
Much of the GOP establishment nevertheless is getting behind Specter, including the White House. But Toomey is making gains. Two dozen members of the state legislature support his insurgency, as do Pennsylvania right-to-life groups and national organizations such as the Club for Growth. Steve Forbes and Grover Norquist also back him. The Pennsylvania primary is closed, meaning that only Republicans can vote in it; conservatives therefore will have a lot to say about who wins the nomination. Specter believes there’s a conservative case to be made on behalf of his re-election. On primary day, though, conservatives might well make a different declaration: “Not proven.”