In his final Senate speech on Tuesday, Arlen Specter promised a “closing argument” documenting what ails our politics.
What he gave us was 20 minutes of self-serving gripes, empty name-calling, and petty meanness. It was a fitting end to his querulous career.
Cast as a call for bipartisanship and civility, Specter's last hurrah was instead a perfect example of how the princes of Capitol Hill jealously cling to power, like Tolkien's Gollum clutching his precious ring. Specter's speech exemplified how senators' pretensions to principle mask their political self-interest and narrow ideology.
Recalling his old gang of moderate Republicans, Specter painted a composite picture of the sort of senator he admires, such as the late Ted Stevens, the infamous porker given to bouts of arrogance, who lost re-election in a cloud of scandal and after being convicted of corruption (Stevens was cleared thanks to prosecutorial misconduct). Specter also fondly recalled Sen. Bob Packwood, who resigned under threat of expulsion after facing sexual harassment charges.
Half the moderates Specter invoked in his reminiscence have since cashed out to K Street, including John Warner, Slade Gorton, Warren Rudman, and Jack Danforth.
But the heart of Specter's speech was his thinly veiled gripe about the events that ended his career in November. First, he decried that “Senators have gone into other states to campaign against incumbents of the other party.” It's as if the Senate were a country club where members might compete fiercely on the fairways, but should always join hands in keeping the gates locked to outsiders. Specter apparently thinks the problem with Washington is that incumbents are too beholden to voters.
Then Specter got more to the point: “Senators have even opposed their own party colleagues in primary challenges. That conduct was beyond contemplation in the Senate I joined 30 years ago.”
Specter was misleading in using the plural. He was speaking only of one incident — when South Carolina conservative Sen. Jim DeMint told Specter he would back his former House colleague Pat Toomey in Specter's 2010 Republican Senate primary.
Specter, who had also just seen some dismal polls, left the GOP and immediately earned praise for his “independence,” although he admitted his motivation was simply to be re-elected. As he said on “Meet the Press”: “I'm simply not going subject my 29 years in the U.S. Senate to that Republican primary electorate.”
Throughout the speech, Specter claimed to hew to some principle, while repeatedly showing disdain for those same principles. Specter assailed the Citizens United ruling as “judicial activism” that would allow corrupting corporate influence in our elections. Moments later, though, he held up the write-in bid of Sen. Lisa Murkowski as the “the way to counter right-wing extremists” like Toomey and Utah Sen.-elect Mike Lee. Murkowski's re-election was fueled by $12 million in outside spending by a group funded entirely from the corporate coffers of lobbyist-run companies that she has enriched with federal dollars through earmarks and special contracting rules.
So we know Specter doesn't really mind corporate influence in politics. We also know he doesn't mind judges making law, because he has called Roe v. Wade “inviolate” and sank Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination in fear that Bork would overturn Roe. There's no principle here. Instead, Specter knows what he likes — abortion on demand and pro-choice porkers like Murkowski — and he knows what he doesn't like: the increased public criticism of politicians Citizens United would allow.
In typical Specter style, he painted the Tea Party and its candidates — which would include at least five senators-elect — as “right-wing extremists” in a speech declaring “above all we need civility” in the upper chamber.
But back to Bork — and this captures Specter's petty meanness. Specter bragged in his memoirs that he “hit the game-winning RBI” in sinking Bork's nomination to the high court. On Tuesday, Specter gratuitously referred to “Justice Bork — excuse me, Judge Bork.”
Speeches like Specter's — praising bipartisan compromise and lamenting a lack of comity — are common in the Senate, and they're music to the ears of a press that has made “centrism” the only virtue. But the glaring contrast of Specter's stated principles and his actions help reveal such talk for what it is — self-aggrandizing justification for ensuring re-election and advancing one's ideology.
Sen. Specter on Tuesday wanted to show us what was wrong with Washington — and, unwittingly, he did.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.