Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The conscience of Arlen Spector

Oh, Arlen, what will happen to your vaunted conscience? If your recent actions are the guide, I am worried for you. Not to mention the country.

What does it mean that Arlen Specter has jumped ship from the Republicans to the Democrats? The obvious point is that when Minnesota’s Al Franken senator is finally sworn in, and he will be, the Democrats will have a filibuster proof majority (making it even less likely that Senator Coleman will give up his challenge to that seat). There are already lots of blogs out there on the subject, but my spin is, I hope (I always hope) a little different.

The thought of Democrats and liberals gleefully rejoicing that they can do almost anything they want with our lives in terms of legislation is as repugnant to me as – well, if the Republicans and conservatives had this opportunity. It is bad for the country and bad for us as individuals. It will allow ideologues on the left to throw aside any pretense at moderation, literally jam ruinous governmental control, extremely high taxation, particularly in the future, and unconstitutional laws down our collective throat.

Although I had others reasons, this is one of the principle reasons that I wanted John McCain in the White House (the other being a long history of decrying spending). If there is one thing worse than one party control of the government, it is one party control with a filibuster proof majority. The electorate has spoken and now we are all in for it.

In case any of the readers of this pseudo-intellectual blog don’t understand the mechanics of this filibuster thingamajig, here it is in short. We have two legislative houses in our federal government. The house of representatives is one and the senate is the other. The house’s internal rules allow it to be controlled by a simple majority. 51% wins. The senate’s rules, however, allow 41 senators to block any legislation simply by refusing to end the debate (which is called filibustering). The only way to end a filibuster is by a cloture motion. If 60 senators vote to close debate, the legislation goes to an up and down vote with the majority winning just like in the other house. When one party has 60 senators, this is not difficult to do, as membership in congress is not a prescription for courage, wisdom or independence. They tend to vote with their party, particularly on procedural votes like cloture.

Very often, political movement exposes both parties to fair charges of hypocrisy. In fact, one might define politics as the art of disguising hypocrisy as policy. A few years ago, when the Republicans were still in control of government (but did not have a filibuster proof majority) they railed against Democratic use of that tool. Now, it is the Democrats who sought to avoid it. A pox on both of your houses.

I am almost always a fan of politicians jumping ship to the other party, or, better, when they become independent. While their own party reviles them for doing so, as if it were an athletic competition, the other party cheers them on. For me, any slap in the face of a political party is usually well deserved. However, as Arlen Specter’s doing so now comes with the destruction of the minority voice’s power to block legislation at this time, I am disappointed and concerned about it. You have to read my posts about the direction we are heading for the last 6 months or so to understand fully why I find this particularly worrisome, but let me say the party in power’s predilection to spend all the money we have, had and will ever have, in the mad hope that it will stimulate the economy, is a black hole from which I believe, if unchecked, our country, perhaps the world, will spend decades climbing out of. The fact that the quarterly gdp today showed another huge tumble while Obama and co. tell us things are starting to look up, just reinforces my beliefs that we are not just heading in the wrong direction, we have our foot on the accelerator. I say this not because I am a trained economist, but because I am not. Therefore, common sense and history can still be a guide. While the Republicans in power destroyed any claim they have had to being for lower spending, the Democrats have used this crisis to do so in an unprecedented and frightening way. It is as if they are bailing water in reverse, hauling it from outside a sinking ship and sloshing onto the deck.

Specter has been one of my favorite Senators since he apologized for his behavior in threatening Anita Hill during Judge Thomas’ hearings in 1991 (and just as an aside, yes, I believe Thomas made a few off color jokes, but, it shouldn’t have mattered at all or been brought up). Spector is one of the more reasonable and fair legislators in either house in my mind, which is why he was liked by the other side and disliked by the more ideological members in his own party. Republicans have been doubtful of him for years, and, clearly, they had reason to be. I remember one day watching C-Span and seeing him take the floor to explain to anyone watching that the political rule being used, which allowed the chairman of a committee to cut off amendments simply by making one of his own, even if it was as little a change as taking away or adding a comma. In other words, it was a ridiculous and unfair rule and he wanted us to know it. Of course, it was C-Span, so almost no one was watching, but it endeared him to me further and I thank him for caring. I actually tried to email him my appreciation and learned that you can’t contact the senators or congresspersons unless you are in their constituency. Figures. If you can’t vote for them they could care less what you have to say.

I am not one of those who will castigate Specter for changing parties, but, I am afraid that I fully expect him to act with even greater hypocrisy now than we can usually expect from politicians, which is saying quite a bit. While he would usually (not always) vote lockstep with his Republican party on procedural issues, as almost everyone else does, he will now have to do the opposite - vote with the Democrats in lockstep fashion if he wants to maintain their favor, and clearly he does. That will mean selling out on many a position that he would have said just a couple of days ago he believes in.

Ironically, Specter will find that he has more power but less personal freedom as a Democrat than as a Republican. Here’s why. While he was a Republican they had to be concerned that he would leave the party and drain their power even further. Thus, while many Republicans wanted to take the chairmanship of the judiciary committee away from him while they were in power, they couldn’t, because of the fear that he might bolt the party. That gave him leverage.

Now, of course, the Democrats will not be so handcuffed. His entire political career will be dependent on their largesse. Without them, he will not get Democratic primary victory. Without them, he will not have control of a committee (I understand he wants appropriations, making him one of the most powerful men in government). Without them, he is almost certainly a lame duck senator without any power.

Thus, Arlen Specter must not displease his handlers. He claims that he will not be an automatic 60th vote, but will continue to vote his conscience. We will see. It is at least doubtful that he can do so with a highly partisan issue and continue to get Democratic support. They will turn on him as they did with Joe Lieberman before they recognized that they could lose him to the right if they didn’t play ball.

Politically, of course, it was the right move for Specter. He was almost certainly done in Pennsylvania’s Republican Party and has to run as a Democrat to survive. Even if the conservatives regain power, it is not likely that they could do so before 2014 at best. By then, Spector will likely be retired (or worse - he will be well into his 80s).

For your viewing pleasure, watch the partisan sniping. No doubt it is the ideological right who chased Arlen out of their party just as the ideological left chased Joe Lieberman out for a while (he’s an independent now, but still in the Democratic caucus). Many of those who sniped at and castigated Lieberman for his “betrayal” in leaving the Democrats, supporting McCain and the Iraqi War, will find it delightful that Specter has switched sides. Those who found Lieberman’s doing so a sign of his healthy conscience and patriotism, will find those same qualities lacking in Specter, and visa versa Like I said, the hypocrisy is rampant on both sides, as usual. We cannot not expect less from politicians, who are, after all, in some cases, almost human.

I would have been much happier had Specter become an independent. It would have been a sign that he would actually act independently and according to conscience, which is what a congressperson or senator should do. There is no doubt in my mind either, as much as I have liked Specter, that this is a purely cynical and political act. Specter says that he doesn’t want to put his lengthy political career in the hands of Pennsylvania’s Republican primary (where he probably can’t win because his party is against him), but, completely hypocritically, he is fine about putting it in the hands of the Democratic primary (where he probably can win with party help). His claim to be willing to take on all comers there is a little silly as it has already been reported that the powers that be in Pennsylvania’s Democratic world intend to clear the decks for him.

If you doubt this was a hypocritical act, you can recall that Specter said almost a decade ago, when Jim Jeffords jumped ship, that he had the right, but doing so was bad for the country. In Jeffords case, it effected the power structure in the senate, but it did not result in one party rule. Guess his conscience has changed since then.

A filibuster proof majority is not run of the mill. We have to go back to the 70s for the last one, and that was during a less ideological and partisan time where the members did not always vote in lockstep fashion. Thus, in the "average" American’s lifetime (about 25 years), no party has had so much power. That should be scary, but the average American really doesn't look at these things very deeply, and probably takes no notice. For those on the left who think this is a good thing, careful what you wish for. You may just find that disaster is looming.

Make no mistake about it, we now have one party rule, no different than in other countries we mock for their tyrannical laws. It’s not just that the country has voted Democratic. It’s that the rules of our legislative branch have been sculpted over the years to make the two parties paramount. Now it will soon be just one party by those same rules. While the press goes on and on about the arbitrary benchmark of Obama's first one hundred days in office, this switch is much more meaningful.

But, Democrats and liberals should not gloat too much. They need only remember a few years ago when Republicans had a virtual lock on government, and got to greedy, too fat and too full of themselves, leading us to this pleasant day - with one party opposition for the party their ballyhooers were calling all but dead.

Is there hope for us? There is always a hope or two, however unforeseen, and I still do not look to the end of America, even if we have shot ourselves in the foot. Specter might make me feel better by actually voting as he did before, that is, without obsessive catering to one party or the other, even if he leans in one direction. Seeing how he has explained his defection by the usual hypocritical means, I do not have a lot of confidence in his doing so, whatever he says now. We will see how he reacts when he gets his first equivalent of a dead fish from Rahm Emanuel.


  1. Bears7:02 AM

    Get over it. Dems rule. Surprised you didn't bring up Spector's history. This is the SECOND time he's switched parties. He went from the Democrats to the Republicans in 1965. Stick with the winners, that's the spirit. I generally agree with most of your points, just think your panic over balance ignores the abysmal performance of the party in power for the last eight years. Given that, the swing the other way is NOT that a big a deal. It MAY even turn out to be a good thing.

  2. No doubt the Republican overkill is behind the switch in power. That was a result of too much power 2000-2006. I've written that before didn't think but it needed to be repeated here (I do so worry about my dear readers having too much too read in their busy lives). But, it is not just a switch in power I'm concerned about. It is a filibuster proof one party rule that concerns me above and beyond the usual two party rule. And, no, I don't believe it will be a good thing. Need I quote Mark Twain again - "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself."

    Thanks for writing.

  3. Good riddance to him. He is a 2x turncoat. He can now be the embarassment to the dems that he's been to the GOP.
    I only wish he'd taken McCain and his idiot daughter with him.

  4. And I thank you for proving at least my point about the various reactions to his switching parties.

    The question is, will he disappoint me and knuckle under to save his career or continue to vote his conscience, whether I or others agree with him or not.

  5. He has no conscience (at least in the sense of acting upon what one thinks is right or wrong). He acts only out of a sense to preserve HIS job. Doing what's "right " has nothing to do with it.
    Don't be so gullible.

  6. You get the Whatch you talkin' bout, Willis award for the week. At risk of repeating the whole damn post, how do you get that I think it was anything but a cynical political move by the following --

    "Oh, Arlen, what will happen to your vaunted conscience? If your recent actions are the guide, I am worried for you. Not to mention the country. . . . I am not one of those who will castigate Specter for changing parties, but, I am afraid that I fully expect him to act with even greater hypocrisy now than we can usually expect from politicians, which is saying quite a bit. . . That will mean selling out on many a position that he would have said just a couple of days ago he believes in.
    . . . Politically, of course, it was the right move for Specter.
    . . . There is no doubt in my mind either, as much as I have liked Specter, that this is a purely cynical and political act. . ." and so forth.

    However, as far as partisanship goes, like I said, this is merely the reverse of the Lieberman affair from '06, and the partisans thinking it good or bad depending on what it did for there party.

    And now, I have a wasp in my house (insect, not a New Englander) that I must take care of. "Here waspie, waspie."


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .