Commentary Magazine


The Last Days of Arlen Specter

With only a week to go before Democratic primary voters choose a candidate for the United States Senate, the incumbent’s campaign is beginning to have a Last Days of Pompeii feel to it. In that classic old movie — the original Hollywood disaster flick — ordinary people in the ancient Roman city go about their lives without an inkling about a fact the audience knew before they entered the theater — that their world is about to blow up.

In that same way, we are now watching Arlen Specter campaign for a sixth term in the Senate as if 2010 weren’t different from any other campaign he had ever fought. The polls showing Specter now trailing challenger Rep. Joe Sestak among Democrats aren’t merely routine bad news for a failing campaign. They are a cataclysm for the senator. Specter’s greatest strength in the primary was the sense of inevitability about his victory that backers such as President Obama and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell have tried to foster. Without it, it’s going to be hard to hold the loyalty of the Philadelphia party ward bosses, whom Specter is counting on to manufacture a winning margin. While there is no sign that the state or city party is lessening its efforts on his behalf, these are exactly the kinds of people who don’t like going down with a sinking ship and who won’t go all-out for a candidate who won’t be in a position to do favors for them in the future. Without a massive turnout produced by one of the last viable urban political machines in the country, Specter is sunk. Moreover, Specter’s best argument to convince Democrats to back him — that he is a stronger candidate against Republican Pat Toomey in November — is also fading, given that a month ago polls showed Toomey with a substantial lead over either Democrat.

Ironically, the latest of the state’s leading newspapers to endorse Specter — the Philadelphia Daily News — seemed to understand that dissatisfaction with incumbents and the corruption of earmark spending that Specter exemplifies made the race “a microcosm of the American political landscape” in which the choice in November will be between “a bellwether for the nation, embodying a shift rightward, or a more moderate staying-of-the-course.”

The Daily News makes no secret that it wants the answer to be the latter, but give it credit for creative writing in its endorsement of Specter, in which it characterizes his obvious flip-flops and party switch thusly:

He comes by these changes honestly, as part of a process of finding the truth in issues that resist easy answers. He has been smart and tough enough to survive — and thrive — while resisting easy categorization.

Talk about political spin, this sort of blatantly cynical and deceptive line brings to mind H.L. Mencken’s famous (if not altogether fair) characterization of William Jennings Bryan: “If he was sincere, then so was Barnum.”

Meanwhile, there are two other interesting developments in the race.

Specter has been taking a beating for his “swift-boat” ads sliming opponent Rep. Joe Sestak for his Navy record. So the Democratic establishment brought out the original “swift-boat” victim — Sen. John Kerry — to endorse Specter. While Kerry gave the usual pro forma endorsement of a fellow member of the Senate Democratic caucus, he pointedly refused to endorse Specter’s attack on Sestak or talk candidly about the obvious comparisons between the attacks he suffered and those directed at Sestak. Such an endorsement may hurt more than it helps, since it merely draws more attention to an issue that makes Specter look like a vicious incumbent willing to do or say anything to gain re-election.

Even more unhelpful for Specter is President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. As it happens, the 2009 vote to confirm Kagan as solicitor general occurred during the senator’s last weeks as a Republican, and he voted against her. This gives Sestak yet another opportunity in the last week of campaigning to hammer Specter as a cynical turncoat. Specter’s having to spend time this week dealing with yet more evidence of the insincerity of his conversion to the Democrats is a boost for Sestak.

Taken all together, these developments point to a Specter defeat next week. But while the ending is becoming increasingly clear to the rest of us, we’re left wondering whether he understands that these may well be his last days as a politician with a future.