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What Happened to Politicians Like Arlen Specter?
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Last month, the third anniversary of a man’s death came and went without much - if any - public attention.
This is particularly ironic as he garnered much notice during the twilight of his life. For awhile, the man seemed a magnet for headlines, the reason having so much to do with his own actions as the changing climate of American politics.
Arlen Specter was the sort of politician that we don’t hear much about these days. He built a reputation for following his conscience and voting in the best interests of his constituents, rather than toeing the party line. For the lion’s share of his career, one might say he lived up to this persona.
From the time he was elected district attorney of Philadelphia County until not long before he retired from the United States Senate, he cared most advancing good ideas through compromise rather than debate.
Most outside of Pennsylvania will likely remember Specter for leaving the GOP during early 2009. He joined the Democratic caucus because he thought that his party had taken too radical a turn. Considering the fact that he was sure to lose his then-upcoming reelection primary simply because of voting for the stimulus package, this is a difficult point to disagree on.
As the oldest fresh face in Democratic politics, Specter veered sharply to the left. This does not appear something done out of conviction. Rather, he discovered that Democrats were radicalizing in a manner none too different than Republicans. A centrist such as himself was unwelcome among the evermore hardcore constituencies of either major party.
Though few deemed such a thing possible, at least until shortly before it happened, Specter did not even crawl through the Democratic primary. He was challenged by Joe Sestak, a retired admiral who became a well left-of-center congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs. Sestak appeared the ultimate nominal opponent, lacking Specter’s campaign coffers and failing to cement support from state or national Democratic heavyweights.
Nonetheless, Sestak managed to galvanize activists across Pennsylvania and scored an upset victory.
It could be said that the end of Specter’s political career symbolized the conclusion of a political era. He belonged to a generation in which people chose to talk about the tough issues rather than shout over them. The creeping tide of partisanship inevitably swept him away from Capitol Hill, though, and brought in new ideas which have done nothing to improve the legislative system.
The saddest thing is that, in the end, Specter tried to accommodate this change. Under the ethic of ‘if you cannot beat them, join them’, he strove to become the sort of partisan which agitated masses yearned, and still yearn, for. Sestak already offered a candidacy for this crowd, though, and what took place on primary night should not have been a surprise to any clear observer.
Still, despite his unbecoming last few months in politics, Arlen Specter has left this country with a profound legacy of public service. Needless to say, none of us always agreed with his opinions. That being said, it is all but impossible not to respect him - especially when his career is viewed in the long term.
Hopefully, public officeholders and those considering a life in politics will learn from his examples. Of course, this might mean losing a few elections, but in the long run, it should prove well worth the cost.
Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at