Analysis: Specter’s Defeat Bad News for Obama

Tuesday, 18 May 2010 10:18 PM

By David A. Patten

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The defeat of Sen. Arlen Specter, the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history, marks the end of a political era.

It also proves that Washington politicians wholived by the rule of political expediency are finished, as far as American voters are concerned.

The Specter defeat also is a blow to Barack Obama’s political power. Specter strongly backed Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package and his massive healthcare overhaul.

Though Obama strongly backed Specter, and put his political muscle behind the turncoat Republican, along with the powerful political machine of Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Democratic voters sent a jarring message Tuesday night by picking maverick conservative Joe Sestak as their nominee.

Initially, Specter's April 2009 abandonment of the Republican Party appeared to be a Houdini-like escape.

It enabled him to avoid a primary slugfest against GOP challenger and former Congressman Pat Toomey, a contest that polls showed Specter losing.

Specter believed he had an ace in the hole. He could trade his support in the Senate for Democratic support. In return, he would give President Obama and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid the coveted 60th vote to head off a GOP filibuster over healthcare reform.

The deal was set, but it ignored one crucial player: Pennsylvania voters.

Millions flowed into Specter's campaign coffers. Democrats mobilized Organizing for America, the president's campaign group, to help Specter. And Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Gov. Rendell all campaigned for Specter as well.

In a campaign ad, the president credited Specter with helping to "pull us back from the brink" because of his vote for the stimulus package. "I love Arlen Specter," Obama professed.

Sestak, the retired admiral and congressman who defeated Specter on Tuesday, even claimed during the campaign that the White House had offered him a high-level government position in return for dropping his challenge to Specter.

Sestak hasn’t been able to offer much in the way of specifics to support that claim, but making it helped establish him as a principled candidate not operating purely out of self-interest.

Democratic voters were faced with a choice: picking the principled Sestak or Specter, who brazenly bragged to reporters that he switched parties simply to win re-election.

On the campaign trail, Sestak suggested at every opportunity that he was the only real Democrat in the race. A conservative on foreign and military policy, he even picked up endorsements from the Democratic left, which broke from the party's establishment to oppose Specter.

Both the strategy and timing of Sestak's ad campaigns are being hailed as brilliant. The ads offered subtle suggestions that the 80-year-old Specter was ripe for retirement.

"It’s time for a new generation of leadership,” one recent ad declared.

The ads compared Sestak's voting record with Specter's, which naturally leaned more Republican.

Also, Sestak relentlessly aired ads that showed Specter saying, "My change in party will enable me to be re-elected."

In the end, however, what spelled Specter's doom was the wave of voter frustration with Washington and growing worry, even among Democrats, that Obama has gone too far left. Pennsylvania Democrats had strongly backed Hillary Clinton in the heated Democratic primary during the 2008 race. Sestak has long been aligned with the Clinton wing of the party.

Specter’s defeat could bolster the idea that, if Obama’s approval falls further, Secretary of State Clinton may have the support to challenge Obama in 2012.

It is easy to dismiss Specter as simply a victim of anti-incumbent feeling.
The spin along those lines began even before the election.

"I am surprised at the depth of anti-incumbent feeling," Rendell commented this week about the campaign trail.

And Specter was the state's most visible incumbent.

But Sestak was no Washington outsider. He was the candidate the Obama White House labeled unkosher.

As the vote results showed Tuesday, Democratic voters are not taking their cues from Washington, and they are looking for integrity in a time of economic turmoil.

Throughout Specter's controversial career, he had played the dangerous game of flirting with conservatives and progressives alike, without ever really committing to either side.


It was a political formula he'd used to become Pennsylvania's only five-term senator. But it was also an approach that, in the era of big bailouts and Obamacare appeared out of step with an increasingly partisan Washington.
Specter had held elective office as a Republican for 44 years, before his fateful decision to leave the GOP.

A Yale law grad, his entrée into politics came when then-Rep. Gerald Ford recommended him for a job with the Warren Commission, which was investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Specter proposed the "single-bullet theory" the Commission used to conclude no conspiracy had occurred.

Since first being elected senator in 1980, Specter had staked out a middle ground.

He played a key role in killing the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. But later he angered Democrats with aggressive questioning of Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Specter accused her of committing "flat-out perjury."

At times in his career, Specter's position in the political center gave him leverage and influence. But as Washington faced the most polarizing President who pushed a radical economic and social agenda in Congress, there was little room for aisle-jumping moderates. One senator openly mocked Specter to Newsmax, saying colleagues called nicknamed him “Spector the Defector.”

In June of 2009, a Rasmussen poll showed Specter with nearly a 20 point lead over Sestak. But buoyed by a stalled economy and anger over a healthcare plan that calls for massive cuts to Medicare, Sestak was able to make steady progress. Pennsylvania has the highest number of Senior Citizens per capita in the nation.

On his Washington Post blog The Fix, Chris Cillizza observed Tuesday that "White House officials at the highest level played an integral role in Specter's party switch and did everything they could to convince Sestak to reconsider his bid."

Given the president's personal involvement, Cillizza wrote, a Specter loss would inevitably "raise questions [about] the approach the White House is taking to these contested races."

When he switched parties, Specter thought he'd snagged a return ticket to Washington.

On Tuesday, voters in Pennsylvania gave him a one-way ticket home.

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