This past Sunday, former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter passed away. After 44 years in elected office, his passing inspired everything from visceral celebration to solemn remembrances of a more bipartisan America. Renowned as a confrontational and aggressive figure, "Snarlin' Arlen" to his enemies, Specter created controversy and chaos whenever he stepped into the fray. He strove to treat nuanced political issues with the careful consideration they deserved, but he was not above pragmatic compromise when it aided his own ambitions. He was intelligent, perceptive and fiercely independent; he was nakedly political, ambitious and rude. He was an outdated throwback to an earlier era, and he was exactly the sort of career politician America needs right now.
Specter's outspoken independence came from a time when politicians could stray from the party line with more freedom. Take, for instance, Specter's work on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Specter was the junior member of 14 senators reviewing the nomination of Judge Robert Bork by President Reagan to the Supreme Court.
Bork was a controversial candidate, touted by Republicans as a balanced and intelligent Constitutional scholar, but painted by Democrats as an old-fashioned extremist. Specter was everything he was supposed to be during the nominations. He asked intelligent and incisive questions, listened carefully to Bork's answers and formulated an opinion. Ultimately, Specter was one of six Republicans to vote against Bork. This move of course angered other members of his party, who felt that Specter and the others had not toed the line properly. None of the six, however, faced any serious challenges from within the party. They all continued to work in politics for some time.
Compare that decision to today — In 2010, five Republicans again crossed party lines in a Supreme Court nomination, this time in favor of Elena Kagan. Of those five, one was already retiring, one would soon retire due to "a polarization of atmosphere", and one would go on to lose a primary to a Tea Party candidate. None of these actions were necessarily directly related to the Kagan vote, but it is telling of modern politics that those who show a willingess to cross party lines are either retiring or being forced out.
Specter himself learned the danger of walking back and forth across the aisle in modern politics. He was one of only three Republicans in the Senate to support President Obama's stimulus act (the other two were Olympia Snowe, R-ME, the retiring candidate mentioned above, and Susan Collins, also R-ME, who should expect a primary challenge of her own when her next election comes in 2014). For this act, which he called a vote of conscience that he though would save America, Pennsylvania Republicans lambasted him. Infuriated by what they perceived as his betrayal, they protested "Benedict Arlen" Specter, and began planning to run a primary challenger against him. Run out of town by his own party, Specter took his only available move and switched his affiliation to the Democrats, after 44 years in elected office as a Republican. The move ended his career.
This is not to say that Specter's story was all fearless bipartisanship and fierce independence. When it suited Specter, he could tack hard to the right. Democrats hated him for accusing Anita Hill of perjury and backing the nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. He could be shamelessly ambitious and changed his opinions seemingly at random (for example, he was totally against school vouchers, except for the times when he consistently voted in favor of them). His opponents were quick to seize on his tendency to switch positions at will, and members of his own party reviled him as a RINO (Republican In Name Only).
Yet despite what the Tea Party may claim, there is much to be commended in this sort of politicking. Yes, career politicians tend to act for their own political and personal gain, and that can have profoundly negative outcomes. But for all his allegedly unpopular flip-flopping, Specter was the longest-serving senator (five terms) to ever come out of Pennsylvania. And for all that his ambition cost him in the end, Pennsylvanians were probably better represented thanks to the four committee chairmanships his ambition earned him.
The fact is that though they sometimes appear loathsome and unlikable, career politicians have a vested interest in seeing the country succeed. After all, they are closely identified with the political establishment. If the establishment fails and Congress gridlocks, then they lose their jobs. It is the Arlen Specters, Harry Reids and John Boehners of American politics who reach out across the aisle to keep things going.
Some may claim that their grand bargains are misguided, or their attempts to reach across the aisle are cowardly. But it is career politicians who have the incentive and the ability to keep Congress moving forward, while ideologically pure "citizen legislators" cause gridlock on key issues and struggle to keep their positions. Specter, with his years of experience and credibility, could call the Bush administration out on inaccuracies and still preserve the legitimacy of his party. GOP freshmen last year made their own party look ridiculous over the debt ceiling.
Over the past three decades, the GOP has moved steadily to the right. This has forced moderate career Republicans to either change their views or leave the party, which in today's climate amounts to leaving politics. Arlen Specter's career provides some plain examples of this. In 1996, the maverick Specter was able to mount an inspired, if ultimately unsuccessful, bid for the presidency. In 2012, voters got his much more extreme and much les articulate fellow former Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum. In 1992, a primary challenger who claimed that rape could not cause pregnancy was easily defeated by Specter. Two decades later, another politician espousing the same criminally inaccurate idea has a chance of winning a seat in the Senate.
In that steady slide to the right, America has lost some of its most moderate voices and intelligent political minds. We have lost our Olympia Snowes, our Mike Castles and our Charlie Crists. On Sunday, we finally and irrevocably lost Arlen Specter. The Republican Party, and the nation, is poorer for it.