Arlen Specter: Snake of the First Water

05/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the (political) wind blows, just follow Arlen Specter.

The constant of Specter's career has been the shedding of one political skin for another.

He begins as a Democratic counsel to the Warren Commission and goes on to serve the Philadelphia Democratic Machine as assistant DA under James Crumlish. Specter then rebels against the machine to run against Crumlish for DA in 1965, now as a Republican. In 1969, his groundbreaking media reelection campaign features himself and his Republican running mate for City Controller, Philly basketball star Tom Gola, campaigning on the slogan "they're younger, they're tougher and nobody owns them."

However after their successful 1969 campaign, Specter goes on to lose every political race he attempts over the next 11 years. He loses one race for mayor, two for Senator and one for governor. He actually becomes something of a laughing stock in Pennsylvania politics until finally, in 1980, Republican Senator Richard Schweiker retires, leaving an open seat which Specter captures in the Reagan landslide.

It is more than ironic that Specter rides to power on the Reagan political wave and and swims over to the Democrats when that wave is exhausted.

Dogged: For sure. Lucky: A little.

Opportunistic? Opportunism is actually Arlen Specter's middle name, but mostly Specter's career is a reminder of an eternal verity we forget at our peril. For most politicians, politics is a job, not a cause. Most politicians use our enthusiasm to fuel their campaigns and then go their own way. In fairness they pretty much have to. A senator needs to be a political hack, a statesman, and a 24/7 campaign fund raiser all at the same time. Not an easy thing, nevertheless it would be too easy to give a snake like Specter a free pass because of it.

Senate Democrats are happy with Specter now because he potentially gives them their 60th filibuster breaking vote; that is, if the Republicans don't try to filibuster Al Franken in the courts for the next year and a half. (Hint: they will.)

However for those of us who don't believe that the current political system is a viable way to achieve either change or good governance, Specter's conversion offers yet another teachable political moment.

There have been a number of Pennsylvania Democrats lining up to run against either Specter or "Club for Growth" candidate Pat Toomey, who would have been Specter's Republican Primary opponent. All of these Democrats now become long shot challengers in a Democratic Primary race against Specter.

The only way for any of them to break out would be to run an aggressive populist campaign against Wall Street bailouts, the banks, the credit card and insurance Industries and the old boy network that allowed Wall Street greed to bring down the World Economy. A campaign like that, stressing radical top-to-bottom campaign finance reform as a way of keeping the Arlen Specters of the world at bay, would be a shot across the bow of a Democratic Party that constantly needs to be reminded why it was put into power.