April 5, 2004

A specter over the Right?

By: Timothy P. Carney

With the Pennsylvania primary fast approaching, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), challenged by conservative Pat Toomery, has begun his shuffle to the right. If Specter wins this primary, expect the next day to see the 74-year old tack hard to his left in preparation for his final term.

I think here of that scene in the Transformers cartoon when the Decepticons have fooled the public into banishing the Autobots from the Earth. At the Decepticons’ first press conference after the people have voted the Autobots to outerspace exile, a reporter asks Megatron his plans. “I’m glad you asked, Earth germ,” Megatron, over his sinister laugh, explains that he will “conquer the world.”

It is not hard to track how Specter has moved right in the past year in response to the primary contest from his right. In a cynical move worthy of Bill Clinton, Specter, who voted to push taxes higher in a time of surplus (before the conservative challenge), has started favoring lower taxes in a time deficit (after).

But this move has happened only because Specter now needs to defuse conservative anger at his past record. Let us take a moment to examine record:

In 1987, Specter not only voted against Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, he led the fight against Bork. Instead of Bork, we got Anthony Kennedy.

Kennedy is not as far left as David Souter or John Paul Stevens, but his vote was the decisive one in upholding Roe v. Wade in the 1992 decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In other words, Roe v. Wade, which even pro-choice scholars agree involved serious legal contortions, only stands today because Arlen Specter destroyed Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Bork.

In 1999, Specter voted against removing Bill Clinton from office, citing Scottish common law.

Specter has opposed school choice, tort reform, tax cuts and spending cuts. His agenda is antithetical to Bush’s agenda and the conservative agenda.

Now, at primary election time, he has moved two steps right, which still places him well to the left of the GOP mainstream.

In the past year, while he has voted to ban partial-birth abortion and for the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, Specter backed Democratic amendments that would have eviscerated those bills. For partial-birth abortion he backed the Democratic amendment that would have created a “health-of-the-mother” exception. Such exceptions, it is understood on both sides of the debate, can be employed in almost any situation, thus making the ban not a ban at all.

On the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, he voted that a fetus injured or killed was not a victim. He has also voted that Roe was rightly decided, and he’s resisted school choice measures.

Nice Specter is still bad. Normal Specter is very bad. Specter in a last term, with the Judiciary Committee gavel in his hand, will be a terror.

Getting control of the process of filling the courts has been his life’s dream. After his 1996 Presidential race, which was grounded in eliminating the GOP’s anti-abortion plank, failed miserably, running Judiciary was the best he could hope for. With term limits driving Orrin Hatch out of that spot, Specter is the heir-apparent.

If he has played nice with GOP leadership to date, what incentive will he have once he already has the prized gavel in his hands? Also, he chairs the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations sub-committee, second in prominence and price tag only to Defense. Specter will have risen to the height of his power if gains reelected. That thought should terrify any conservative.

Plus, the man is 74. He will not likely seek a sixth term in 2006 at the age of 80. In his last term, not only will he not be responsible to the leadership and the White House, he will not be responsible to the voters.

How would a lame-duck Specter act? For a model, look at Georgia Democratic Senator Zell Miller.

Miller was always obnoxious to Democrats, giving the GOP important votes on tax cuts and the Ashcroft nomination. Since he’s decided to call it quits, though, Miller has been a true liability and danger to the Democrats.

The Georgian has written a book on how awful the Democrats have become. He goes on television whenever possible to talk about the wretchedness of his party. He is at the head of “Democrats for Bush.” He can do all of this, because he is done with politics.

That will be Arlen Specter in six years. He will decry Bush’s inadequate education funding. He will tear into Bush’s judges the same way he did into Bork, for having too “narrow” a view of the Constitution.

And for the entirety of his last six years, Specter will guard the gates to the federal judiciary. Specter’s said he has no ideological litmus test, and in letters to the editor proved that by mentioning his votes for Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and O’Connor. This means he finds all five of these judges to his right, but he’ll abide them. How out of touch does a Republican have to be with conservative judicial philosophy to consider Sandra Day (partial-birth abortion is a constitutional right) O’Connor to his right?

Tim Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.