Legislative Politics

Arlen Specter and “Moderation”

Oct 15 '12

Longtime senator Arlen Specter (R, er, D-PA) has died and is being largely lionized as a man of the now-missing middle. As one such headline suggests, “Centrist Sen. Specter Died Fighting for Moderation.”

But this blog has not shown a lot of love (see here and here, for instance) for various paeans to self-described independent centrist movements seeking moderation in a smorgasbord of present positions. And Sen. Specter’s career strikes me as an intriguing addendum to those concerns. Others will (already have, e.g., here) weigh in on his role as vetter of judicial nominations; in my own research focus, presidential power, Specter was similarly all over the map. On the one hand, he was very interested in limiting the scope of presidential signing statements, convening hearings in 2006 to explore and denounce George W. Bush’s expansive use of this tool. On the other, he invented a theory of an inherent presidential line-item veto that did not convince even the Reagan administration. And in 2006, he voted for the Military Commissions Act, even after publicly declaring it to be “patently unconstitutional on its face.” (A judgment with which the Supreme Court agreed, a while later.)

Did this variance make him “moderate”? Or just annoying? These particular shifts didn’t seem particularly grounded in principle. And as a thoughtful obituary on NPR this morning noted, Specter wound up “reviled by the right [and] mistrusted by the left.” As is well known, he began political life as a Democrat, shifted to the GOP for a long Senate career and, in the end, fled a Republican primary only to be defeated in a Democratic primary instead.

Granted, Specter was perhaps not temperamentally suited to serve as a bridge figure, even before the party caucuses separated themselves so dramatically; Bert Rockman recounts Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana drawling that “Ah-len is a hard man to do a favor for…”  But given how often pundits call out for more people in the “middle,” presuming a “sensible center” (as Richard Darman put it) could dominate American politics, it is worth noting in Specter’s career and political demise the challenges such a path poses.