Specter and Naked Political Ambition

In two posts last summer (here and here), I discussed Sen. Joe Lieberman's career after his decision to become an independent rather than a Democrat (but to continue caucusing with the Democrats). I noted Lieberman's surprisingly low profile in the Senate and his apparent lack of an affirmative agenda, and I concluded that Lieberman simply was desperate to keep his Senate seat as a goal in itself. I thus agreed with Michael Dorf's earlier assessments that "Lieberman has made plain that the cause about which he cares most deeply is Joe Lieberman," and "[B]ehind Lieberman's disarming wit lies the soul of an opportunist."

Which brings us to Arlen Specter. Whatever one might think of my assessment of Joe Lieberman's motives, one has to give Specter credit for removing all doubt about his. In his announcement that he has decided to become a Democrat after several decades as a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, he stated quite openly that he was motivated by the fact that he would have probably lost the Republican primary next year against a hard-right opponent. Noting that he did not want to have his political career ended by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate, he simply admitted that he wanted to stay in the Senate and was willing to do what was necessary to win a sixth term. Two cheers for honesty!

The political world has treated this as a major story, and the Democrats were so happy to have Specter defect that they promised to give him full seniority in their caucus as if he had been a Democrat all along. Why should this matter to anyone? Specter made clear that he still would not support some important positions on which most Democrats and President Obama agree, such as the EFCA bill (changing the rules on union organizing), and he continues to oppose Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel. He celebrated his defection by voting against Obama's budget. He announced that he would not necessarily join his fellow Democrats to end filibusters.

Some of this, of course, is a matter of trying to maintain some dignity. Rather than announcing that he has agreed to change his views to align with the majority across the board, Specter understandably at least wants to make it seem that he is maintaining his independent-mindedness. The Democrats have surely (one hopes) felt him out in terms of his likelihood to support them on other issues on which Specter's positions are not yet public. (On the other hand, as Michael Dorf pointed out earlier this week, Specter's move could also make it more difficult to win confirmation of Obama's judicial nominations.)

Fair enough. This could end up mattering, in that the Democrats might have just lined up a crucial additional vote on some unspecified contentious future issues, and in return they allowed Specter to continue to say that he is not selling out -- for anything other than the seat itself.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan