Another Perspective

Specter Cornered

Conservatives have made their point -- and Arlen now says he’ll behave. But for how long?

By 11.8.04

WASHINGTON -- The Republican currently in the sights of conservative activists is Senator Arlen Specter who just after the election said it was "unlikely" that he would allow pro-life judicial appointees to move forward should he become the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Although the odds are still long that Specter will be denied the chairmanship, they are still better than they were even three days ago.

Not surprisingly, Hugh Hewitt has come to Specter's defense:

The opposition to Specter seems headquartered at The Corner. Many friends post at The Corner, so I paused, considered their arguments, and thought it through. On reflection, it seems to me a very bad idea to try and topple Senator Specter from what in the ordinary course of events would be his Chairmanship. I hope my colleagues on the center-right that embrace pro-life politics will reconsider.

Hewitt then argues that by bypassing Specter for the Chairmanship, Senate Republicans will dangerously destabilize an institution. Hewitt is vague as to what institution he is referring to, but presumably he is referring to the seniority rule whereby the Senator who has been on a committee the longest has first dibs on the chairmanship. This argument is thoroughly unconvincing because House Republicans have violated the rule with impunity since 1994 with few if any consequences. It is also unpersuasive when one considers Hewitt's solution:

A great deal of extra-constitutional nonsense has grown up in the traditions of the Senate. The GOP majority ought to insist on a rule that assures that every nominee that gains a majority vote of the Judiciary Committee be brought to the floor. This is a long overdue reform of reactionary practices such as "blue slip" holds and filibusters of judicial nominees.

In other words, one tradition must be upheld at any cost because its violation could be destabilizing, but other traditions can be jettisoned because, well, doing so would divert attention away from Specter. As he makes abundantly clear in his book If It's Not Close They Can't Cheat, Hewitt just doesn't like Republicans who do not hold office attacking Republicans who do.

As important a voice as Hewitt is in the conservative movement today, he seems to miss a crucial reason why our movement is increasingly ascendant: distrust of those who hold power, even those who are on our side. We recognize that when those politicians who are nominally on our side go against our principles, they can do almost as much damage (if not more) than those politicians who are not on our side. We also recognize that the longer a Republican is in office, the more likely he is to work against conservative principles. It is the arrogance inevitably bred from long stays in power.

ARLEN SPECTER IS currently the prime example. How is he arrogant? Let us count the ways:

1. He is well aware of the frustration among the conservative movement at seeing President Bush's judicial nominees blocked these last four years. Still, he suggests he might continue the blockage.

2. He has been dubbed the "Worst Senator" on the cover of National Review. NR's prime complaint is his thwarting of conservative judicial nominees. Still, he now strongly hints that NR's fears are well founded.

3. Specter has seen first hand what the blogosphere can do to politicians who are careless with their remarks. Bill Frist, and not Trent Lott, is now Senate Majority Leader because of that. Still, Specter thinks nothing of making remarks sure to inflame conservatives.

4. Prominent conservative groups like the Club for Growth backed Pat Toomey's primary challenge to Specter. Specter narrowly escaped by 15,000 votes. In short, Specter was put on notice about conservative discontent with him. Still, his first post-election words could not have done more to further foment that discontent if they had been designed to.

5. It was President Bush's intervention in that primary that saved Specter's bacon. Bush showed tremendous loyalty. Still, Specter repays the President by spitting in his face.

All of this should have given Specter tremendous pause before he suggested he would be imposing a litmus test as chairman. Yet he has been in power so long that he now thinks he can speak with impunity. The Judiciary Committee is his birthright.

Thanks to the alarm sent up by National Review and a "Not Specter" site set up by RedState.org, the Senate has been flooded with angry calls and emails denouncing Specter. Specter has felt the heat, backtracking by saying that he was only talking about the reality that the Democrats can still filibuster in the Senate. Yesterday he even appeared on the Sean Hannity show to reassure the political right that he was really sincere about supporting President Bush's nominees.

Conservatives should keep turning up the heat. If the Senate GOP can't be persuaded to keep Specter from the chair of the Judiciary Committee, they can feel enormous pressure to change the rules so that will be very difficult for Specter to wreak havoc.

It will also make Specter's tenure as chair a very nervous one. If he can't be kept from the chairmanship, that is the next best thing.

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About the Author

David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.