Arlen Specter’s Switch Is a Mixed Blessing to Progressives

by James M. Wallspecter

Not to be churlish about it, but news that Arlen Specter has switched parties to save himself from certain defeat in the 2010 Republican primary comes as a mixed blessing for peace and justice progressives. 

Specter brings Senate Democrats a filibuster-proof majority, 60 votes, assuming Al Franken survives Norm Coleman’s prolonged court struggle in Minnesota.

On progressive issues, Specter’s record is not encouraging.  Now 79 years old, he announced his late in life political conversion by reasserting his opposition to a major labor reform bill, the EFCA (Employees Free Choice Act)

The latest print edition of the ever-reliable Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (May, June, 2009) reports that Specter will bring to the Democratic Party his deep loyalty to Israel, for which he has been rewarded generously by Pro-Israel PAC contributors during his 29 years in the senate.

 Two other senators, both Democrats, have received more career Pro-Israel funds than Specter’s $503,473. Michigan’s Carl Levin tops the list with $728, 737, followed by Iowa’s Tom Harkin with $552, 950. Specter is third in the career list, which was reported by WRMEA managing editor Janet McMahon, 

In February 2005, Specter was diagnosed with an advanced form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer, for which he has had two periods of chemotherapy treatments, first in 2005, and and most recently, 2008.  He courageously continued work in the senate throughout the treatments which left him with a temporary baldness that he proudly displayed in public, much to the encouragement of other cancer patients. 

Specter’s announced opponent for the Republican nomination would have been former Pennsylvania Congressman Pat Toomey, who narrowly lost to Specter in the 2004 Republican primary. A recent poll showed Toomey with a substantial lead for the 2010 nomination. His extreme conservatism virtually guarantees he will lose the 2010 general election. 

As the Democratic nominee, Specter would easily defeat Toomey in the general election. There is no guarantee he will get the Democratic nomination. Pennsylvania is a labor-oriented state. If Specter insists on opposing EFCA he could face a labor-backed opponent in the Democratic primary.

(Chris Bowers writes on that Arlen Specter does have an announced primary challenger. His name is Joe Torsella, CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia,who  says he will still run, even though Specter has switched parties.

Torsella has already passed one major political rite of passage. He has engaged in a comedic duel with Steve Colbert at the Constitutional Center, from which he emerged with his dignity.) 

A progressive website,, which ranks all members of Congress on specific issues, gives Specter a middle to lower voting record on progressive issues. Such rankings tend to reflect the political philosophy of the organization doing the ranking, but it is still instructive to compare Specter’s career ranking, for example, to that of Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate. Some specifics:

On Human Rights and Civil Liberties, Specter receives a 30% rating; Kennedy, 98%.

On Fair Taxation, Specter 5.5%; Kennedy, 99%.

On Labor Rights, Specter (before the EFCA vote) 45%, Kennedy,95%.

On the plus side, Specter should be a valuable veto-proof vote for judicial appointments, unblocking the holds Republicans have placed on President Obama’s appointees, budget bills (Specter’s support for the Stimulus Bill greatly angered his fellow Republicans), health care, education and energy programs. (One activist in the health care field assures me that Specter was a health care advocate long before he was struck by cancer.) 

Specter’s departure has further isolated moderates in his former party, two of whom, Lindsay Graham, of South Carolina, and Olympia Snowe, of Maine, blamed his defection on the extreme right in the Republican party. has their story.

If Specter gets another six years in the Senate, where he will no longer have to look over his shoulder at right wing primary opponents, he could emerge as a senator open to change.  He could, that is, follow the example of our newly-minted Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who was recently lauded by New York columnist Roger Cohen for what he calls her “Mideast Pirouette”. 

Cohen opens his column with the reminder that

Israel’s interests are not served by an uncritical American administration. The Jewish state emerged less secure and less loved from Washington’s post-9/11 Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy.

Criticism of the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come from what Cohen terms “an unlikely source: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton” who has transitioned “with aplomb from the calculation of her interests that she made as a senator from New York to a cool assessment of U.S. interests.”

Cohen continues:

I hear that Clinton was shocked by what she saw on her visit last month to the West Bank. This is not surprising. The transition from Israel’s first-world hustle-bustle to the donkeys, carts and idle people beyond the separation wall is brutal. If Clinton cares about one thing, it’s human suffering.

In fact, you don’t so much drive into the Palestinian territories these days as sink into them. Everything, except the Jewish settlers’ cars on fenced settlers-only highways, slows down. The buzz of business gives way to the clunking of hammers.

The whole desolate West Bank scene is punctuated with garrison-like settlements on hilltops. If you’re looking for a primer on colonialism, this is not a bad place to start.

Most Israelis never see this, unless they’re in the army. Clinton witnessed it. She was, I understand, troubled by the humiliation around her.

Cohen, who has produced consistently critical columns on Israel’s Occupation of late, writes in a gentle tone but his own personal anguish is clear. The Comments the Times prints are also worthy of careful study. 

Cohen’s description of the West Bank sounds more like Gaza, with its abundance of donkeys and carts, than it does the urban centers of the West Bank where most of the Palestinian population lives surrounded by oppressive walls. But Cohen is entitled to a bit of poetic license; what matters is that he tells us what Secretary Clinton witnessed, and how she reacted.

This is the woman who as a senator and future presidential candidate praised the Wall as beneficial to both Palestinians and Israelis. We can certainly forgive her for that remark now that she has crossed the wall into the West Bank and experienced the reality with her own eyes.

If Hillary Clinton and President Obama are standing up to Netanyahu’s right wing government despite the hostility of our AIPAC-controlled Congress, it would appear, as Lee Hamilton, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, told Roger Cohen, that: “Initiatives are underway that show the United States is going to have some major differences with Israel.”

Reality has changed Hilary Clinton. Perhaps that is because, as Cohen puts it, “If Clinton cares about one thing, it’s human suffering.”

Change is also possible for Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, now that he has entered the Democratic majority, where he will find more progressive-leaning colleagues than he ever could have found in the Republican party.  

Whatever his motives for switching parties, Specter should be greeted with gratitude and a touch of Obama Hope.  Politicians are never perfect. But some of them can actually be redeemed.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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1 Response to Arlen Specter’s Switch Is a Mixed Blessing to Progressives

  1. Harris Fawell says:

    Arlen Specter’s choice to switch parties is testimony to the fact that the Republican party no longer has a place for moderate Republicans.

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