The Price of Opportunism: Arlen Specter's Tough Fight

Pennsylvania's switch-hitting Senator Arlen Specter suddenly faces a tough primary fight against opponent Joe Sestak

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Charles Dharapak / AP

It is one of the grand and glorious traditions of American politics that traitorous behavior is cloaked in principle and indignation. Ronald Reagan, famously, didn't leave the Democratic Party in the 1950s. The Democratic Party left him. Ever since, the Reagan formulation has been the ironclad rule for party switchers. And it would have been perfect for Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican whose prickly moderation — and proud pork barreling — had become decidedly aberrant among Republicans. After five cholesterol-laden terms in office, Specter was facing a prohibitive primary challenge from a right-wing ideologue named Pat Toomey. He was also in an excellent position to make a deal: his vote would secure passage for both Barack Obama's stimulus package and his health care plan. And so, convinced of his indispensability, Specter dispensed with the Reagan camouflage. He told a starker version of the truth: "My change in parties," he said, "will enable me to be re-elected."

But candor is rarely rewarded in politics, especially when it is self-aggrandizing. Specter's invited the question, Is that the only reason you decided to become a Democrat? It also invited a primary challenge from an actual Democrat — an estimable one, Congressman Joe Sestak, a former three-star admiral who, in 2006, became the highest-ranking former naval officer to serve in the House of Representatives.

I covered Sestak's 2006 House race and was impressed. He was a long shot, a relative unknown running against a 10-term Republican named Curt Weldon, also famed for bringing home the bacon. When it became known that Weldon was stuffing his own pantry — yet another congressional Republican caught up in scandal that year — Sestak's victory became inevitable. But he made a clever argument along the way, about how life in the military had made him a Democrat: the sense of community and responsibility, the incredible social benefits — education (he received a doctorate from Harvard's Kennedy School), retirement, health care. When his daughter Alex was diagnosed with brain cancer (she has survived and is a lovely, exuberant girl), Sestak became a man on a universal health care mission.

Sestak was a long shot in the Senate race too. He wasn't known outside his district in the Philadelphia suburbs. Specter was an institution, with support from the state and national party establishment — and from special interests like the labor unions, which had always benefited from his Appropriations Committee porkification. "When our community was devastated by Hurricane Ivan," says Jim Burn, the Allegheny County Democratic chair, "President Bush and a bunch of public officials landed in a helicopter, surveyed the damage and then took off. Specter was the only one who stayed. He got us through that disaster. How can we toss away his 30 years of seniority?"

Pennsylvania is an old-fashioned sort of state. Its Democrats tend to be union laborers, Catholics and urban minorities well organized by big-city machines. It is the sort of party in which Specter's decisive vote on the stimulus package is something to be bragged about — the antithesis of Tea Party America. But it is not immune to the fierce political winds blowing in the country. This is not a good year for incumbents — and Specter, at age 80, the survivor of two bouts with cancer and heart surgery, has come to the point where he seems more geriatric than old-fashioned. "My rank and file likes Sestak," a labor leader told me. "Specter just seems old."

And Sestak has made him seem older with a nimble, counterpunching ad campaign that turned the race around in a two-week period at the beginning of May. Specter made the initial mistake of attacking Sestak's military record: after a sterling career, the admiral had been sacked from a top naval planning job. (Sestak was known to be a very demanding boss and, according to military sources, was responsible for bad morale in the planning shop.)

Sestak responded with an effective ad featuring veterans defending him and slamming Specter for swift-boating his record. And then he landed a real haymaker, an ad featuring Specter's immortal gaffe about switching parties, followed by footage of George W. Bush touting Specter as "someone I can count on." Specter's response was a tepid endorsement ad from Obama, which seemed a sour echo of the Bush endorsement. With days to go before the election, Sestak slipped ahead in the daily tracking polls.

A week before the May 18 election, Specter visited Pittsburgh and spoke to the Allegheny County Democratic Party. It was a sad, disjointed speech, a series of stale jokes that didn't go over and promises of pork that were cheered. But the substance, such as it was, was overwhelmed by another Specter gaffe. At both the beginning and the end of the speech, the Senator thanked the "Allegheny County Republican Party." In the end, it seemed that Arlen Specter might have left the Republican Party, but the Republican Party hadn't left him.