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Specter: Loyal Opportunists

06/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When recent Democratic re-convert Senator Arlen Specter defended himself with outrage against the charge of being a "loyal Democrat" this week, we knew exactly what he meant: no core beliefs, idealistic yearnings or basic ideology will ever come between him and power. In that sense, he joins a long line of politicians of both parties who have taken their profession's innate opportunism to exquisite extremes. Usually, they are hailed as moderates or, ultimate accolade, as bipartisans, at least until earlier this year when Congressional Republicans of all stripes marched in lockstep against Barack Obama, making an official mockery of the absurd concept of bipartisanship (why even bother having parties if we are going to be bipartisan?).

Moderation in itself is not a sin, but its fetishization is. More often than not, it masks inconsistency, rootlessness and raw ambition. When Rep. Jane Harman was recently caught in a breathtakingly naked display of disloyalty to her country, she blamed the attacks on her "bipartisan" record. Well, yes, we always did hate her bizarrely hawkish foreign policy positions, so at odds with her relatively liberal Southern Californian constituency. But now we know what drives those views: the Congresswoman's enslavement to a small group of donors and lobbyists. Bipartisanship as a cover-up for moral and possibly financial corruption: time for this particular "moderate" to go. Senator Joe Lieberman too prided himself on his ability to work with the other side, that is until his side turned on him for being too much like the other side. It should hardly have been a surprise to Lieberman that Connecticut Democrats, not exactly known for aggressive pro-war attitudes, would turn on one of the biggest cheerleaders in either party for George W. Bush and the Iraq folly. After his defeat in the Democratic primary and narrow victory in the general election as the sole representative of the Connecticut for Lieberman Party (really), Lieberman pronounced himself "liberated" from the shackles of the Democratic party, and promptly started campaigning for Republicans everywhere, including John McCain. Obama's magnanimity notwithstanding, Lieberman is another "moderate" who has to go.

The lines are rather thin between pragmatism, constituency representation, and pure opportunism. Even as a Republican, Specter has long been inconsistent on many issues, apparently depending on the timing and voter pool of the next election. By contrast his two former Republican colleagues from Maine, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are rather predictable. This presents its own issues, but from that consistency emerges a whiff of what they stand for: social liberalism and fiscal conservatism, tempered by Yankee pragmatism. In this, they seem a reasonably good fit for their state and have been rewarded both in primaries and general elections with increasingly easy wins despite Maine's growing Democratic bend. On the other side of the aisle, progressives may see many things wrong with the voting record of Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, but as the only Democratic Senator from the Deep South, she has shown remarkable survival skills even as her state was drained of many of its most reliably Democratic voters in the aftermath of Katrina. She is as good a fit with her state as the Democrats are going to get. Conversely, when an electorate doesn't like what a politician stands for (Lieberman's foreign policy) or doesn't know what he stands for, trouble ensues. In that latter respect, Specter is not likely to find it easier going in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary than he would have in the Republican one. Happily, unlike Lieberman, Specter will be constrained by his state's sore loser laws which ban him from running in the general election.

Voting one's constituency can also be taken too far, or have unintended consequences, as the newest Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, can attest. One of the most conservative Democrats when she represented a district with strong Republican leanings, Gillibrand has had to reconsider her public views on a score of issues, from guns to immigration, to ingratiate herself with the liberal statewide Democratic electorate she will face next year. The conversion is so extreme that many voters rightly seem to have trouble taking her seriously, judging by gloomy early polls. Gillibrand's senior colleague and chaperon, Senator Chuck Schumer, in his unmatched totalitarian way, has called for a non-competitive primary for his newest protegee, an act of extraordinary ambition and contempt that hopefully will backfire on both Senators. Schumer himself should count his blessings that New York Democratic voters will likely not have the option to punish him next year for his inept and faintly corrupt role in the current financial meltdown: the list of his biggest donors is a who's who of bailed out bankers rewarded by Congress for their criminal greed. And indeed, Schumer has amassed so much money generally that it seems so far to have scared away any major primary opponents.

Schumer has had an epiphanic change of heart himself on at least one issue this year: same-sex marriage, which he now supports. Indeed gay rights, including marriage, are a perfect illustration of another peril of moderation: taking a middle-of-the-road stance is hardly always the perfect solution it seems. "Don't ask, Don't tell," a Kafkaesque compromise whereby gay people can serve in the US military as long as they are not gay, was stupid when Bill Clinton instituted it, and is stupid now. Civil unions, which Schumer heretofore supported to the exclusion of marriage, are just as absurd in their "separate but equal" compromise, as several studies have now found. On this issue, it is fascinating to see politicians such as Schumer, and presumably soon Obama, find much of their constituencies well ahead of them: clearly marriage is not, after all, the hand grenade worthy of a "moderate" stance that they feared it was. In fact, by the time mainstream conservative Republicans such as Bush have essentially endorsed the "moderate" position, as they have civil unions, that surely means it is now the right-wing one.

Schumer's unsettling obsession with Gillibrand notwithstanding, Democrats have been far better than Republicans at recruiting and supporting candidates who are a good fit for their constituencies (yes, Schumer deserves some credit for this.) Unfortunately this sometimes means some stunningly right-wing politicians are included in the massive tent that the Democratic Party has become, especially in the South. Republican leaders and voters seem incapable of the same pragmatism: if they were, Specter would still be a GOP Senator. Indeed, the potential Republican candidates for 2010 that have showed the most promise are overwhelmingly from the moderate, or at least pragmatic wing of their party. If Governor Charlie Crist of Florida, an Obama fan, runs for the open Florida Senate seat in 2010, as is expected, he is the overwhelming favorite. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who has survived repeated challenges in one of the most Democratic Congressional district still held by the GOP, is also faring very well in polls for his state's upcoming Senate race. In New Jersey, moderate Republican Christopher Christie is leading incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine for this year's gubernatorial race. Before he took himself out of consideration, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge was the Republicans' best hope against Specter. Even in Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Senate's most ambiguous pro-choice Republican, is favored in a general gubernatorial election. The big "if" in all these races is whether these less ideologically rigid Republicans can make it past their party's primaries, even in a liberal state such as New Jersey. Additionally, sitting members of Congress as conservative as, say, McCain, find themselves under attack by extremist nut jobs who have absolutely no shot at winning in a general election. A repeat right-wing challenge by uber-conservative Pat Toomey scared Specter so much that he jumped ship. In the past two electoral cycles, Republican members of Congress who were a good fit for their district, if not for their party's hardcore voters, went down to primary defeat, replaced by right-wing candidates who lost the seat to Democrats in the general election.

Further down the road, in the presidential elections of 2012 or 2016, the person emerging as possibly the biggest threat to Democrats is Jon Huntsman, the Governor of Utah, of all places. Huntsman has positioned himself as a pragmatic Republican whose focus is on economic issues and who has accepted that on social issues from abortion to gay rights, the country has moved forward and is not looking back. His journey is interestingly the exact opposite of that of Mitt Romney, an opportunistically moderate Republican when running for Governor of Massachusetts, who veered laughably right as a presidential candidate. Both men seem likely to face one another at some point on a national stage, and the outcome of that contest will say much about the GOP's future.

There is little doubt that the country has made a political left-turn, leaving opportunistic moderates from both parties scrambling to find their cherished middle. Whether this center has moved forever or just temporarily, moderates are in a rough spot, and only the smartest and the fittest, or perhaps simply the truest are likely to survive.