On the trail with Arlen Specter.
It’s 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and I’m at a gun show on the outskirts of Philadelphia where Sen. Arlen Specter is set to tout his NRA endorsement. The man seated next to me has a black T-shirt with blood-red lettering that reads, “Some People Are Alive Simply Because It Is Illegal to Kill Them.” I accidentally catch his eye and he glares at me, which wouldn’t make me nervous except I am in a room full of semiautomatic weapons, memorabilia from the Third Reich, and Japanese Samurai swords.
The only small talk I make is with a middle-aged man who expresses disappointment that there aren’t any vendors selling the reinforced white plastic tubes you bury in your backyard to “dump your guns in when the man shows up to take ‘em.”
“I should have picked one at the last show,” he says. I nod and smile, because…well, what do you say to something like that?
A few minutes later, Specter shows up and gives the kind of speech anti-government conspiracy theorists go gaga over. He rails against the ATF and FBI raid of Randy Weaver’s Ruby Ridge cabin — during which an ATF officer and Weaver’s wife and teenage son were killed — and the siege of the Branch Davidian complex at Waco.
Specter plays up the folk hero status Weaver currently enjoys on the gun show circuit (Weaver makes his living these days mostly by selling signed Polaroids of himself at these shows), telling the crowd Weaver had been “entrapped” by the government when he refused to “be an informant.” Specter promises to use his clout as a senator to combat such “abuses of power” in the future.
That said, Specter moves on to the heart of his stump speech, which consists of quoting and re-quoting (at length) from President Bush’s flattering endorsement six days earlier. Specter is in surprisingly good spirits, but seems frazzled when the gun rights folks start to ask questions. Queried about his support for McCain-Feingold, Specter simply apologizes for the vote. He lifts up his palms and says, “I made a mistake.” A question on his support for the Assault Weapons Ban gets a non-verbal shrug. A trio of college girls with literature from the campaign of his challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey, are happy to fill in the gaps.
I’m canvassing Pennsylvania because the Specter-Toomey race has become a proxy for a larger struggle within the Republican Party. The four-term senator from a battleground state was described by President Bush as being just “a little bit independent minded,” in an aw-shucks there-goes-Uncle-Stew again way, but Specter’s votes and speeches over the years have made him a tempting target for conservative activists would like to make a statement against the compassionate conservative drift of the party.
Specter is the man, after all, who enthusiastically supports taxpayer funding of abortions and is the beneficiary of thousand of dollars of Planned Parenthood money targeting Toomey on his behalf; who’s against tort reform and school choice; who supports racial quotas, who helped invent the verb to Bork, who voted “yea” on certifiable pinko Ruth Bader Ginsburg and “not proven” on the removal of Bill Clinton (citing an obscure provision of Scottish — yes, you read that right, Scottish — law), and whose presumptive chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee is not likely to be kind to traditional jurists.
And there’s more, of course: Specter fought Bush’s tax cuts; has a lifetime love affair with labor unions; and was the only Republican senator to vote for a bill allowing the International Criminal Court to try American soldiers — an attack on our sovereigntyso heinous even John F. Kerry voted against it.
So it should have come as no surprise that rightwing activists looking for a way to send a message to the Bush administration and Congress — in protest of everything from the orgiastic spending to campaign finance reform — settled on this race. The conservative money pouring into the state isn’t enough to pull Toomey even with Specter’s $10 million war chest, but there are other benefits. Conservative publications have focused attention on the race and talk radio has decided to talk this one up. Volunteers, from in and out of state, are turning the Toomey campaign into more of an electoral crusade.
Conservative Christian Radio personality Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is flown into the heart of Amish country the Friday before the vote to endorse Toomey. Dobson explains to 400 or so Toomey supporters that he rarely makes political endorsements, but he is doing so here because the race is “a squeaker” and because the culture wars have “heated up” of late. Dobson says that a Toomey win will send “shivers down the back of the liberal establishment.” And then Toomey opts to send some pre-emptive shivers by promising to work to overturn Roe v. Wade.
This populist challenge, and the incumbent’s withering poll numbers, has both Specter and the national GOP spooked, and they’ve hatched a three-pronged approach to save his hide. First, George W. Bush endorses Specter in the most unambiguous possible terms (“I’m here to say it as plainly as I can: Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate”) and attempts to recast the election as a race between Toomey and himself. Second, Arlen Specter panders shamelessly, thus the Attila the Hun routine at the gun show. Third, and most surprising, the conservative elements of the Republican Party go to work to deny Toomey as many conservative votes as possible.
At the Dobson event, for instance, a gaggle of Specter supporters shows up outside the convention center with a former leader of the Christian Coalition, Rick Schenker, and holds its own press conference. Though the endorsement is less than full-throated — Schenker says that pragmatic conservative voters should “put aside the differences for the greater good” — it does manage to lure about half the reporters, and others, away from the event.
Fellow Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, also slavishly praised Specter in a television spot. In fact, Santorum has taken to telling everyone within earshot that the primary challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey, is “too conservative for Pennsylvania.” That’s right, Rick Santorum, the man who raised a firestorm last year comparing consensual gay sex to “bigamy,” “polygamy,” and “incest,” has suddenly discovered that Toomey, a man whose positions are slightly to the left of his own, is just too far right.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
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