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Specter Comes Full Circle

Posted on Apr 28, 2009

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

  When Arlen Specter ran for Philadelphia district attorney in 1965, he proudly proclaimed himself a “Kennedy Democrat,” but said he was running as a Republican to take on what he saw as the corruption of the city’s then-legendary Democratic machine.

    Forty-four years later, Arlen Specter has come full circle.

    In announcing his switch to the Democratic Party on Tuesday, the maverick Pennsylvanian was doing more than trying to save a political career jeopardized by the increasing conservatism of the Republican Party. He was also ratifying a decisive shift in American politics.

    The GOP in his home state had once been a bastion of moderates and liberals including William Scranton, Hugh Scott and Richard Schweiker. In the age of Barack Obama, Republicans of that stripe are flooding into the Democratic Party. Specter is not a leading indicator. His conversion is the culmination of an inexorable trend.

    In a sense, Specter’s departure is a victory for conservatives who, since the days of Barry Goldwater, have been intent on purging liberals from the GOP. The raw political fact is that Specter was in grave danger of losing a Republican primary to former Rep. Pat Toomey, an anti-tax activist. One Democratic strategist reported seeing polling that showed Specter less popular among Pennsylvania Republicans than President Obama.


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    Conservatives had once hoped that creating an ideologically pure party would put them on the path to a majority. But they must now worry that the Republicans’ continued rightward drift is putting the party at odds with a moderate to liberal mood that pervades the country almost everywhere outside the Deep South. And Specter’s switch would give the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, assuming that Minnesota’s Al Franken eventually takes the seat for which he now leads after an extended recount.

    At the instant of his conversion, Specter transformed himself from a political underdog into a favorite for re-election in 2010. That’s because Pennsylvania became far more Democratic in the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry carried the state by roughly 144,000 votes. Barack Obama’s margin in 2008 was more than 620,000. According to the network exit polls, Democrats went from a two-point advantage in party identification in 2004 to a seven-point lead in 2008.

    Reflecting a trend across the Northeast and Midwest, Democrats have posted especially strong gains in the suburbs, particularly in the counties around Philadelphia. They had once provided a base for moderate Republicans—notably Specter himself. They are now helping to pad Democratic margins, and Specter is hoping they will support him in his new political incarnation.

    The agony of moderate Republicanism was reflected in Specter’s efforts to appease his party’s primary electorate over the last few months, even as he tried to maintain an independent stance that had served him well in general elections. It was as if he was trying to solve a simultaneous equation for which there was no answer.

    At the beginning of the year, for example, he pleased Democrats and angered Republicans by backing a compromise stimulus package sought by Obama. But in the course of the negotiations, he annoyed Democrats by insisting that the package be held below $790 billion.

    Specter had long received help from the labor movement. Indeed, the unions encouraged some of their members to switch parties in 2004 when Toomey challenged Specter in a primary the first time. But this year, Specter enraged union leaders when he said he could not support their central legislative goal, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for labor organizations to sign up new members.

    Specter, once a master of the ideological two-step, found himself tripping again and again in the new political environment.

    And so he finds himself back where he started his political life. A man always attuned to the direction of the political winds, Specter has signaled that they are clearly blowing the Democrats’ way. A politician always ready to surprise and confound his political adversaries, Specter now finds the party of Obama as appealing as he long ago he found the party of John F. Kennedy. And Specter could not resist paraphrasing Kennedy in declaring that “sometimes party asks too much.” His decision reflects his own personal needs, but it also stands as a warning to the party he once embraced and has now abandoned.
    E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
    © 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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By ardee, May 6, 2009 at 4:55 am Link to this comment

Not to beat a dead horse,but….

The single bullet theory is not, as one poster would have us believe, a proven fact. I would remind all that an FBI marksman, attempting to duplicate the same event with the very same rifle, a Caracano with a loose bolt assembly, was unable to do so. Lee Harvey Oswald did indeed receive training in weaponry but not as much as this FBI agent to be certain.

We are sheep in far too many instances I fear.

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By Joel, April 29, 2009 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We’ve had people like Spector in the U.S. since the Revolutionary War, but even Benedict Arnold had a reason beyond his own ego for doing what he did….
In comparison, Benedict Arnold doesn’t seem too bad, after all.

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By Jim C, April 29, 2009 at 4:05 pm Link to this comment

Mike Kohr , it appears you are unaware that Ford admitted on several occasions that they moved the bullet entry wound down several inches so it would conform with the theory . He ( Ford ) stated that when it was decided to go with the single bullet theory ( for expediency and for the good of the country of course ) they descovered there was one itty bitty problem . The entry point didn’t work , but he also noticed that if it was moved down about two inches or so , bingo , problem solved . He first made this revelation in an interview in the early 90’s , he was pushing a book at the time I believe and then several times there after , but for some reason it recieved little attention . When I heard an excerpt on the radio I about fell out of my chair , but then it was neither repeated nor covered in the local paper . He repeated the same thing several more times before his death but again , it recieved little attention . I’m sure you could find the information if you look .

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By altara, April 29, 2009 at 11:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


President Obama received a 100th day present of sorts as Pennsylvania’s moderate Republican Senator, Arlen Spector, announced that he is joining the Democratic party. In theory this gets him closer to the 60 votes needed to forestall a Senate filibuster.

Senator Spector is no stranger to switching sides. He started in Philadelphia politics as a Democrat, switching to Republican when District Attorney there. More recently, after opposing the Bush warrantless wiretapping he did an about face on the issue, betraying those who praised him for protecting civil liberties.

Although his support is never certain, The Democrats will undoubtedly welcome Spector into their party. However, it is unlikely that they will ever bestow on him the Congeniality Award.


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By Paul, April 29, 2009 at 11:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What Specter and all of us need right now is a progressive candidate ready to announce to oppose Specter in PA. Either that will keep him honest or it will get the left ready to run against him in due time.

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By bill jones, April 29, 2009 at 8:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

That this piece of crap has been welcomed by the Democrats tells everything we need to know about the democrats.

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By P. T., April 29, 2009 at 8:22 am Link to this comment

“The single bullet theory has been scientifically proven and replicated. A disappointing fact for conspiracy buffs but a sad reminder to us all that one lone nut with a gun can affect history.”

That is a non sequitur.  There are no conspiracies, however, in America.  wink

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By mike kohr, April 29, 2009 at 4:12 am Link to this comment

The single bullet theory has been scientifically proven and replicated. A disappointing fact for conspiracy buffs but a sad reminder to us all that one lone nut with a gun can affect history.

Specter’s defection says much more about the extremist bent of what has become of the Republican Party than it does about his own interest in self preservation.

Republicans have long dreamed of a monolithic,  idealogicaly pure party.  They are very close to that goal now. And the more they purge the “unclean” the lower their support among the American People will sink. With only 21% of us identifing as Repblicans today,  one wonders how long before another party wells up to take their place on the national stage. 

And when this happens I’ll bet this new party will find their footing in the middle of the American political landscape,  ground long ago forgotten and scorned by the “Know Nothing” conservative leadership of today’s Republican Party.

mike kohr

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By P. T., April 28, 2009 at 11:17 pm Link to this comment

Arlen Specter gave us the single-bullet theory (magic-bullet theory?) of the JFK assassination.

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By boggs, April 28, 2009 at 8:13 pm Link to this comment

Specter is determined to stay at the feed trough as long as he has a fighting chance. Twenty eight years, and he is still willing to fight for re-election Or at least change parties.
This is the chance for the people to tell this politician that we need more than ego chasers in Washington. We actually could use some legislators who care about the country and can hear the peoples voice.

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By Jon, April 28, 2009 at 2:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Specter continues to be self-serving.  Now, he’s joining the Democrats, but watch, he will continue to vote Republican and flip flop on a daily basis, just as he’s done his entire career.  One day, he’s for investigating torture, the next day, he can’t remember that position and vehemently is against the position he took the day before.  Specter is schizoid and now, a burden for Democrats.  I’m sure the GOP is thrilled that he will be inside the Democratic party tent, throwing it into chaos and weakening the Dems in the Senate even more.

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