Political Hay

Unfit for Command

Arlen Specter's charm offensive proves charmless.

By 11.11.04

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The Philadelphia Inquirer writer had a sense of humor when he wrote about Arlen Specter's "charm offensive" to win back the love of his party and shore up what was once thought inevitable: his election to chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Charm is a word rarely associated with the man known as "Snarlin Arlen," but Specter certainly is working furiously to make friends.

When Specter goes publicly stumping on this campaign, the first thing he does is to take issue with the AP's characterization that he "warned Bush."

In this limited critique, Specter may be right, but that is irrelevant to so many conservatives. First, it's Specter's 24-year record of borking conservative nominees, blocking tort reform, and otherwise fighting for legal abortion that upsets most on the right. But Specter's comments on pro-life judges are a real cause for concern for conservatives interested in seeing Bush's nominees reach the bench.

Specter said in a news conference: "When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely…. The President is well aware of what happened, when a bunch of his nominees were sent up, with the filibuster…"

In his own defense, Specter said this was not a warning, but a statement of "a political fact of life," that is, the filibusters. This remark gets at part of the problem with Specter, and a way in which he is upsettingly like current chairman Orrin Hatch. Instead of "a political fact of life," Specter should have called the filibusters "an unconscionable, unprecedented bastardization of the parliamentary process in order to advance an extreme agenda of radical social change through unelected, unaccountable judges."

One culprit in this weakness is Specter's liberalism. He simply doesn't assign as much weight to the judicial battles as his party's base does. Conservatives see runaway courts making a full frontal assault on their way of life, leaving the Constitution and democracy behind. Placing judges on the bench who will place the letter of the law above their own view of what society needs is a serious matter to conservatives.

But not to Specter. He calls Roe v. Wade "inviolate," which is upsetting not only as it regards abortion, but as it regards the Constitution. Roe is based on "penumbras" and "emanations" and a made-up "right to privacy." Even pro-choice legal scholars, including Alan Dershowitz, find Roe a fabrication.

If Specter doesn't mind the courts making stuff up (Bork was unacceptable because he didn't see the Constitution as a "living, growing document"), then he doesn't see the fight the same way conservatives see the fight. Getting conservatives on the courts now, while Republicans control the White House and the Senate, is essential to slowing the judiciary's upending of the social order.

The other side in this battle is ruthless. Its throw precedent and tradition out the window. It lies and call its opponents Nazis. Conservatives do not need to stoop to that level, but if they're not willing to be knife-fighters, they will lose.

But Specter, when he gets before the media, these days is giving the liberals a free pass. He is fighting fiercely for himself, but not putting in a word for the President's judges.

The other culprit may just be his age. Specter is 74 years old and tired. The spunk he had when he invented borking or even tore up Anita Hill is simply not there. In television appearances these days, he looks worn down. In his debates this spring he repeatedly called George Bush "Ronald Reagan."

Simply put, Specter cannot be a fighter for the conservative side. Electing a chairman who says he will not impose a litmus test against the right is like naming a general who says he won't always fight for the opposing army.

Specter, in short, is out of touch with his party. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday, he listed Sandra Say O'Connor as a "pro-life justice." O'Connor wrote in 2000 that performing partial-birth abortions is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution.

Specter is right to claim the media mischaracterized him. He may be telling the truth when he says he'll sometimes side with conservatives. But his liberalism, his age, and his record all make him unfit to lead the most important fight of the next four years.

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About the Author

Timothy P. Carney is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money (Wiley).