Scant days after President Bush's victory at the polls, conservative are already going to the mattresses again, to echo the famous refrain of Corleone family hit man Peter Clemenza in The Godfather. Their target? Perpetual problem senator, the liberal Republican Arlen Specter, currently in line to head the Judiciary Committee, and, thus, wielding considerable sway over potential Supreme Court nominations.
The election had barely been called for Bush when Specter strolled into a post-victory press conference, and breezily told reporters Bush had "no mandate," reassured the world that he believed Roe v. Wade "inviolate," and, finally, deemed the appointment of any pro-life justice "unlikely." A day later, in the midst of the maelstrom of letters, faxes, and calls into various Republican leaders' offices calling for Specter to be denied his long-coveted Judiciary Committee chairmanship, Specter backed off and claimed his statements had been misinterpreted. He even made the Sunday morning television rounds to reaffirm his fealty to…well, to whatever slogan would help him survive the siege.
But his words did not soothe the souls of social conservatives still basking in the media glow bestowed upon them for swinging the election Bush's way. Apparently, they were not willing to take Specter at his word -- and wait for a smoking gun that could come in the form of a sunken conservative nominee. And why should they? Senator Specter is, after all, the man who spent primary season promising to support "strict constructionists" when fighting true blue conservative Pat Toomey's challenge, only to revise that to "centrists" once Toomey was out of the way.
Specter's biggest asset in this fight is tradition. There is certainly nothing "inviolate" about the upcoming committee vote to recommend a chairman. It is done by secret ballot, and Specter's fellow GOP committee members could take the wind out of his sails quickly if they so desired. They could skip right over Specter and nominate the much more conservatively-palatable Arizona Senator Jon Kyl. But tradition dictates that the senator with the most seniority ascends, and, as we are endlessly lectured, senators are creatures of tradition. Shirking such tradition would be no small thing.
Social conservatives have other walls to scale, as well. The White House, via the comments of Karl Rove on Meet the Press, has made it clear it is in Specter's corner. Senators Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum are said to be working feverishly behind the scenes to save Specter, as well. Senate aides I spoke with said there was a general uneasiness about the whole business, even among conservatives who would have just as soon seen Specter lose last Tuesday as come back to the Capitol and muck up the agenda.
But let's be honest for a moment here. This situation should not come as the least bit of a surprise to anyone. This is the senator who helped invent the verb to bork, for God's sake. He fought the Bush tax cuts -- vociferously, as Bush himself might say -- and has been variously supported monetarily by George Soros, Harold Ickes, Alan Dershowitz, and nearly-First Lady Teresa Heinz Kerry, who actually made a commercial for him in 1992. In a fundraising letter sent out to primary voters during his brief 1992 run for president, unearthed by the fine folks over at Grassroots PA, Specter proclaims a desire to, "give pro-choice Republicans a voice." Some 2004 campaign signs read, "Kerry & Specter For Working Families." Unions love the guy. Liberals, too. Few conservatives would argue with his designation by National Review's John J. Miller as "the worst senator."
Even this year, the liberal Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's endorsement said outright that the "best argument" for voting Specter would be his ability "to block some of the ideologically extreme federal judges likely to be nominated by President Bush in a second term, some of them for the Supreme Court." Even more specifically, the editors wrote, Specter had given his word that "no extremists would be approved for the bench." Why should we have expected anything less from him?
And yet, despite all that, the person most to blame for Specter being in a position to deep six President Bush's judicial nominees is…President Bush. He's the one, after all, who went before Pennsylvania conservatives when Specter was on the edge of defeat and intoned, "I'm here to say it as plainly as I can: Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate." Bush explained that Specter might be "a little bit independent-minded sometimes" but, à la Seinfeld, there is "nothing wrong with that." Those are the words of our president; the guy we keep hearing has a mandate.
Not everyone is on board the anti-Specter train. Syndicated radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt has recently pointed out that Specter just won both the Republican primary and general election in his state, and contends that that should count for something.
"Institutions that are destabilized for expediency's sake do not regain stability after a convenient alteration," Hewitt wrote, adding: "For the past four years Republicans have complained bitterly of Democratic obstructionism that upended the traditions of the Senate. Should the GOP begin its new period of dominance with a convenient abandonment of the very rules they have charged Dems with violating repeatedly?"
It's a reasonable question for even those of us who loathe the idea of Specter helping to shape the Supreme Court to mull over. It is easy to upset the apple cart. Not so easy to right it again. Should conservatives push this through now, they should be fully prepared for the day when a committee made up of liberal Republicans snubs a conservative with seniority.
Nevertheless, for asking such a question, Hewitt was dubbed a "confused conservative" on the website, Not Specter. I have yet to hear anyone similarly deride George W. Bush or Karl Rove. But, then again, maybe that's the sort of deference that got us into this mess to begin with. Perhaps the time to throw a fit was while Bush was lavishing praise on Specter and pulling his chestnuts out of the fire, not a week after the election.
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