Commentary Magazine


No Virtue in Specter’s Self-Centered “Bipartisanship”

Regarding Arlen Specter, Dana Milbank writes:

He is ornery, vain, disloyal and a brazen opportunist. He lacks a discernible ideology, puts his finger to the political winds before casting a vote and in the end does what is good for Arlen Specter.

But Milbank is going to miss him, because “whatever his faults, he fought the forces of party unity and ideological purity that are pulling the country apart.”

This is wrong for multiple reasons. First, why is party disloyalty for the sake of doing “what is good” for a pol (i.e., his own perpetual re-election) a noble thing? Sacrificing party loyalty for a principled stance is a different matter. Joe Lieberman is the quintessential example — casting aside partisan loyalty to advocate a robust foreign policy and the promotion of American values. We can say the same of pro-life Democrats when they cast aside party loyalty to uphold their core beliefs (not very often as Bart Stupak showed). Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter are simply opportunists, sniffing out the most expedient position at the moment. Even Milbank concedes: “His Democratic primary opponent, Joe Sestak, finished off the hopelessly contorted Specter with an ad showing him receiving Bush’s endorsement in 2004 and playing Specter’s boast that ‘my change in party will enable me to be reelected.’ Specter will probably be remembered for that unprincipled quote. I’d prefer to remember him for something else.” Yes, because it demonstrates how disdainful is a philosophy built purely around a pol’s self-preservation.

Milbank is also off-base, because there is nothing wrong with offering voters a rather stark ideological choice. Big government or smaller? Human rights promotion or appeasement to dictators? High or low taxes? One gains a governing majority by presenting a well-thought-out vision on both domestic and foreign policy, getting voters to agree, and then going to Washington with a mandate to govern. And if a politician misrepresents what he is about during the campaign or overreaches (as Obama has done), then a new choice, a new election, and a new mandate will follow.

And finally, the country is not being “pulled apart.” We have a revival of grassroots politics, a new crop of candidates, and a vibrant debate about the role of government and America’s role in the world. How is that bad? And why shouldn’t we see this as an affirmation of the health of our democracy and of the benefits of new media that can assist organizers and facilitate a robust debate between competing philosophies?

In sum, bipartisanship, if conducted on a principled basis for good and honorable ends (e.g., defense of the country), is to be cherished. But bipartisanship without any purpose other than self-preservation or for destructive goals is no virtue. And that’s why Arlen Specter’s defeat is to be celebrated.