Thursday, April 30, 2009

Two men, two concepts of honor

This week we got the not-too-surprising news that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was switching parties, leaving the Republicans and becoming a Democrat.

Specter, frankly, has always been a pain in the butt. He got his start in politics by switching parties - from Democrat to Republican - back in the 1960s when he wanted to run for office in Philadelphia. Once he made it to the Senate he became the ultimate RINO. (That's "Republican-In-Name-Only," much like one of my former bosses, Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, who, like Specter, was a self-serving pain in the butt. But that's a post for another day.)

Specter's primary concern was always "What's best for Arlen Specter?", with actual policy concerns further down the list. The low point was 1987, when - as the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee - he teamed up with Ted Kennedy in the character assassination of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

The scuttling of the Bork nomination was one of the real low points in Senate history. Bork was perhaps the most brilliant constitutional mind in America, was extraordinarily qualified for the court and would have been an outstanding justice. But the Kennedy-led campaign of lies and distortion - aided and abetted by Specter - killed the nomination, and ushered in a new era of extreme politicization of judicial nominees that continues to this day.

Of course Specter got kudos for being "thoughtful" and "moderate" from liberals, and for him, that was the point. If what was good for Arlen Specter conflicted with what was good for the country, he would always take the path of self-preservation.

Which is what his latest move is. Six years ago, a Pennsylvania congressman named Pat Toomey - fed up with Specter's liberal voting record - challenged Specter in the Republican primary, and came surprisingly close, losing by just 1.7%.

This year, Toomey announced another primary challenge, and the latest polls showed Toomey leading Specter among Republican primary voters by as much as 21%. In other words, Specter's not leaving the party because he suddenly realized most Republicans were conservative, he's leaving because he was just a few months away from being voted out.

All of this made me think of another party-switching politician, a fellow from Texas named Phil Gramm.

Gramm was a Democrat congressman in the 1980s, but like many Texas Democrats, he was fairly conservative. A college professor with a doctorate in economics, Gramm was a strong advocate of tax cuts and free trade, and in 1983 his support for much of the Reagan economic plan found him at odds with his fellow Democrats, especially House Speaker Tip O'Neill. So Gramm decided to switch parties, and become a Republican.

But Gramm had a tremendous sense of honor. He reasoned that his switching of parties was unfair to the voters who had recently elected him as a Democrat. So in addition to switching parties, he resigned his seat and went home to Texas to run in a special election. Running as a Republican, he was sent back to Washington by the voters, who later elected him to the Senate, where he was a strong, effective voice from 1984-2002.

(In that special election race, Gramm made a famous TV ad that became one of my favorites. He was shown talking to Texas voters and said "I had to choose between Tip O'Neill and y'all, and I chose to represent y'all." I can't find it on YouTube, but if I do, I'll post a link. He was one of my favorite senators to listen to during floor debates...always funny and insightful, with that great Texas twang.)

If Specter had even a fraction of Gramm's sense of decency, he would resign his seat, let the Governor of Pennsylvania appoint a replacement, and then run in the next election. He'll never do it, of course, because it might not be in the best interests of Arlen Specter, and in his world, that's all that matters.

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