Political Hay

Dear Arlen

How Specter should handle his not-so-senior moment.

By 5.7.09

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Let's be frank senator, you've painted yourself into a pretty tight corner. Never the most popular fellow in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, you have at least always had everyone’s grudging respect as a tough, smart guy. We may not like Snarlin' Arlen, they['d say, but we’d much rather have him as an ally than a foe.

But in the space of a single week, you have squandered that respect. First, you alienated the Republicans by defecting to the Democrats and then you managed to annoy the Democrats enough to have them vote to strip you of your seniority -- the preservation of which was the very reason you switched parties in the first place.

Now you are the 79 year-old rookie senator on every committee the Democrats will consent to let you sit in on. Without that seniority, it is hard to see what you have to offer the voters of Pennsylvania to stay in office. It's not like anybody in the Senate is rushing to do you favors right now.

You needed it too. The labor unions are certain to back a Democratic primary challenge because you've come out against card check. Enough other lefty groups are upset at you for one reason or another -- not to mention your Johnny-come-lately-to-party status – that you are certain to have a real fight on your hands.

Yes, you were double-crossed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He promised to preserve your seniority and then let the caucus vote against it. But it should have occurred to you that after you switched parties Reid would have the upper hand. You had already played your trump card by then and had no leverage left.

That was the fate of Vermont party-switcher Jim Jeffords. After he turned to the Democrats and the hoopla died down, he realized that he wasn’t any better off than before. No, actually, he was worse off. As a Republican he could use the threat of defection to wring concessions from the GOP. As a Democrat he had no such pull. What was he going to do, switch back? He ended his Senate career a bitter man, not even bothering to run for re-election.

Ah, but you didn't ask him, did you?

So now what do you do? Stay with the Democrats? It is hard to see why you'd want to do that. As the vote Tuesday made perfectly clear, they are not going to go to bat for you. I put your hopes of actually winning your state’s 2010 Democratic nomination as slim to none.

You cannot switch back either. That would turn this whole situation into a farce and destroy your remaining credibility. And the Republicans are so ticked off at you they may tell you to take a hike anyway.

Here's my suggestion: Retire. Announce that you are not running for re-election after all.

Yeah, it will smart. Now matter how you spin it, it will taken as a surrender. Pundits will write snarky things about you. Your critics will high five each other. And so on.

But so what? That will pass after a news cycle or two. It’s about time you stepped down anyway. You’re going to be 80 next year and you’re a cancer survivor to boot. You’ve earned a rest. When the history books are written they’ll say Specter served 30 years and then stepped down. There’s no shame in that. Or would you rather end your long career with a loss like Ted Stevens or Bill Roth? 

Besides, think of the fun you can have with the rest of your term. Between now and the end of 2010, you’ll be beholden to no one. Nobody could threaten you. You won’t have to second guess your votes, worrying how they will affect fundraising or boost Pat Toomey’s numbers. You can let it rip at every press conference.

Are you ticked off at Reid for his double cross? Then think of the sheer pleasure you can have in watching him come groveling to you every single time he needs that 60th vote for cloture. Play your cards right and you might even be able to get him to give his press conferences in a pink tutu.

(By the way, you could do the same thing with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will need you as much Reid will during cloture votes.)

So that's my suggestion. You have made a mess of things and the best thing you can do now is to cut your losses. But you still have one last chance to be a big shot in the Senate, however briefly. Take it.

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About the Author

Thirsty McWormwood is the nom de cyber of a writer in Washington, D.C.