Politics

Senator Survivor

By From the June 2009 issue

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Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg once said of Arlen Specter: “He’s an intimidating senator and very successful at any game of ‘Survivor.’” Indeed, Arlen Specter might as well have been born to be champion of that reality show. He’s beaten cancer, a brain tumor, and overcome long odds to win five terms in the U.S. Senate. In April, faced with the almost certain prospect of losing to Pat Toomey, his 2004 GOP primary challenger, Specter pulled his ultimate Houdini trick and switched parties to once again become the Democrat he used to be.

The good news for Democrats is that they certainly got some assurances from Specter that he would be more cooperative with their agenda than he has been to date. “We don’t know what assurances he got from the Democratic leadership,” Democratic consultant Richard Goldstein told Fox News. Indeed, I’ve no doubt that Democratic leaders offered to help clear the field for him in the 2010 Democratic primary as well as direct key contributors to him.

That said, Specter will not be an automatic vote for the Democratic battle plan. He is notoriously resistant to lobbying and possesses a personality so alienating that it has led many in the state to dub him “Snarlin’ Arlen” or “The Arlenator.” He has always been a fierce proponent for open debate and amendment in the Senate, and is therefore unlikely to support parliamentary moves by Majority Leader Harry Reid to shut down extended debate and push through a radical health care plan with a bare majority of Senators behind it.

Indeed, Specter’s standing with Democrats back home may give him some leeway to continue his independent course. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed him trailing badly in his GOP primary against Toomey but scoring a 71 percent favorable to 16 percent unfavorable approval rating from Democrats.

He is likely—but not certain—to win the Democratic primary, but then will likely face a tough general election against either Toomey or another Republican.

The secret of Specter’s success is his dogged work ethic, his utter lack of political shame, and his ability to steer money back home. When he was chairman of a key appropriations subcommittee he personally earmarked hundreds of millions of federal dollars every year for home-state projects while telling conservative donors he believed in ending the earmark process “because it’s gotten out of control.” The reality is that Specter loves pork so much that critics joke he might be loath to kill off animals infected with swine flu. “My adversaries accuse me of voting for pork, but I call it bringing home the bacon,” he told me last year.

Indeed, so zealous is Specter in securing grants for the National Institutes of Health that he was once chastised on the Senate floor by then senator Pete Domenici, a former chairman of the Budget Committee. Domenici, a well-known advocate of greater science funding, nonetheless said the NIH had “turned into pigs. You know, pigs! They can’t keep their oinks closed. They send a senator down there to argue as if they’re broke.” Specter promptly rose to respond, “The NIH did not send this senator anywhere. My views arise from my own research.”

What concerns some Pennsylvania officials is that the senator’s research into what projects should receive federal funds may include a blatant analysis of his own political needs. In 2004, Andy Roman, a Lehigh County commissioner, said that Specter’s staff told him that his request for a local rail project “will never happen” because Roman was supporting Pat Toomey in the GOP primary. “If you cross Arlen Specter, you pay a price,” is Roman’s conclusion.

“He doesn’t suffer from a desperate desire to be popular,” Thatcher Longstreth, who ran for mayor of Philadelphia in the 1970s with Specter as his campaign manager, said once. “He suffers from a desperate desire to be elected.” To that end, Specter has built up an incumbency machine that takes credit for projects in every one of the state’s 67 counties. He travels the state constantly. When I had dinner with him last year in New York, he knew not only my name but also that of everyone else at the table. He focused like a laser beam on the issues he thought would be of interest to me and doggedly made his case.

Specter developed his tireless work ethic early as he rose from humble origins to graduate from Yale Law School. He then moved to Philadelphia to enter politics. Originally a Democrat, he became a Republican at 35 when in 1965 the local Democratic machine turned down his request to be nominated for district attorney. The GOP nomination was his for the asking, but he covered his bases. He changed his party registration only after he had won. After he narrowly lost a race for mayor of Philadelphia in 1967, he was advised by a friend that he needed more warmth. “Okay, I’ll get some,” he replied.

After three defeats for elected office during the 1970s, the “never say I’m not running” Specter hit political pay dirt in 1980 when he narrowly won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and defeated a Pittsburgh mayor in a test of regional strength in the fall.

For the next four elections he spared no effort to line up the fundraising and endorsements he needed to survive in the GOP primary. His string ran out this year, which is why he has returned to the Democrats.

While Specter has survived, the same cannot necessarily be said about his staff. A 2000 Washingtonian magazine survey of congressional staffers rated him the third-meanest senator. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call once named him to a select list of “Simon Legree” bosses for his “tendency to humiliate underlings.” The Washington Post concluded the worst job on Capitol Hill was “Specter flunky.”

Douglas Troutman, a former aide to Specter, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the atmosphere in the Specter office was “white-collar boot camp.” When told of that description, Specter replied, “I haven’t heard that one, but I wouldn’t argue with it.” If his office is akin to a boot camp, Specter is exacting in specifying how he is to be treated on his many official foreign trips. Twice in recent years, outraged State Department officials have leaked to the Washington Post cable traffic detailing Specter’s demands. “Please have a case or two of Evian water for us to take with us at each embassy,” read a planning memo directed to the embassies. Officials were told to schedule “no evening events, including dinner with the ambassador or at the embassy. The Specters like to do their own thing at night.”

Easy as it is to lampoon a senator for fussiness on foreign trips, Specter has never let perks distract him from his devotion to duty. But even there his exacting standards can be seen from two different points of view. In 2002, Specter was on his way from Washington on a Metroliner to New York to catch a plane to the Middle East. His press secretary called him to tell him that the Senate would be holding four floor votes that night. A worried Specter told the conductor, “I just heard we were voting four times. Is it possible to go back to Washington?” Although the conductor no doubt knew that Specter serves on the Senate committee that approves Amtrak’s budget, he had to inform him that the rest of the train’s passengers couldn’t have their schedules disrupted. Specter got off at a station outside Baltimore and took a cab back to Washington.

Now Specter has left the Republican Party at age 79 to pursue one last term as a Democrat. But would he make it his last term? Despite his claim that he “would not suffer from a lack of interesting and important things to do if I were a private citizen,” his colleagues say that the Senate has become his entire life.

“Arlen Specter has observed how staying in the Senate kept Strom Thurmond younger than his years for quite some time,” a former colleague of Specter’s told me. “I wouldn’t be surprised for him to try to emulate old Strom and try to stay in office till age 100.”  

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About the Author

John H. Fund is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of the Stealing Elections (Encounter Books).