As Pennsylvania’s longest-serving U.S. senator, Arlen Specter outlasted many of his political enemies. But after 30 years in office, he could not withstand the current era’s steady erosion of the political middle ground, which ultimately left him without a base.
Specter’s career began in Russell, KA the hometown of former Sen. Bob Dole, and went from there to the University of Pennsylvania in 1947. He served in the Air Force, went to Yale Law School and returned to Philly to practice. He was a staffer for the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Originally a Democrat, Specter made a calculated move to the GOP. That was the best way up in an era when Republicans dominated statewide elections in the Keystone State.
However, Specter’s own ascent was anything but smooth. He lost a bid for mayor in 1967 and was ousted as district attorney in 1973. He ran for the Senate in 1976 and for governor in 1978, losing in the Republican primary both times. But he was not deterred. In 1980, he won narrow upset victories in the primary and the general election, becoming part of the new Republican Senate under newly elected President Ronald Reagan.
He infuriated conservatives in 1987 by joining the Democratic majority in rejecting Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Later, he angered Democrats with his aggressive cross-examination of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas. Then in 1998, believing that President Bill Clinton had not received a fair impeachment trial, he reached into Scottish law and voted “not proven.”
As Specter gained seniority, he became an effective and unapologetic pork barreler. He took it as a badge of honor when Brian Kelly of The Washington Post featured Specter prominently in his 1992 book, Adventures in Porkland – How Washington Wastes Your Money. Specter was indeed a go-to guy for public officials across the state, including Northeast Pennsylvania. He delighted in rattling off lists of regional projects for which he had helped to secure appropriations.
In the end, the vital center did not hold. Specter, after voting for President Obama’s stimulus plan and calculating that he could not defeat the conservative Toomey in last year’s primary, switched parties. Democratic leaders failed to provide him with a clear field, however, and he lost the Democratic nomination to Rep. Joe Sestak.
In retrospect, it used to be that politicians found safety in the middle. But with politics increasingly polarized, Specter’s middle ground became quicksand.
The Senate’s great survivor, Specter outlasted a decade of defeats before ever coming to Congress and stayed afloat through big wave elections from one decade to the next. Sometimes squeaking by in primaries, sometimes barely winning in November, Specter was always finding a way to come back. But not this time.
An effective advocate for Pennsylvania, Specter could make things happen. Love him or leave him, he will be missed.