Ronald Reagan once observed that &quot;a recession is when your neighbor loses his job; a depression is when you lose your job.&quot; U.S. Senator Arlen Specter said recently we are on the &quot;brink of a depression.&quot; Perhaps that is because he may be about to lose his job.
For months it appeared Pennsylvania's senior U.S. Senator would cruse to easy re-nomination and likely re-election. The only candidate capable of defeating him in the primary, former Congressman Pat Toomey was busy with plans to run for governor. Democrats appeared to be without any big name candidates, certainly none with statewide appeal.
Then came the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act, more commonly known as the stimulus bill. It proposed the biggest expansion of government spending in U.S. history. Worse, much of the spending had little to do with stimulating the economy and much to do with expanding the social agenda of a newly minted liberal Democratic President.
Fractious Republicans in Congress united in opposition to the stimulus package. Every Republican in the House and all but three in the Senate voted against the bill. Arlen Specter was one of the three. His vote for the Obama stimulus plan ignited a firestorm of protest at the grassroots of the Republican Party. Specter's apostasy caused Toomey to rethink his plans, and he now appears likely to challenge Specter in next year's Republican Primary.
All of this has turned Specter into a political homeless person. His vote for the pork-laden stimulus package has made him persona non grata in the Republican Party. Even the new national GOP Chairman, Michael Steele, has suggested the party might back someone else in the primary. This has given rise to speculation that Specter might switch parties and run as a Democrat, but there is little reason to believe he would be welcome there.
Specter has always been vulnerable within the ranks of the GOP. He came within a whisker of losing to Pat Toomey in the Republican Primary five years ago. Much has changed since then, all to Toomey's advantage. After leaving Congress Toomey went on to head the national Club for Growth, helping to elect conservatives to both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. He has become one of the most prolific fundraisers in Washington.
Last year, over a quarter million Republicans — mostly so-called moderates — left the party to support Barack Obama. Those were Specter voters, and they aren't coming back. Thus, the Republican Party is even more conservative now than it was five years ago, when Specter eked out a 17,000 vote win over Toomey.
Sensing Specter is among the walking dead as a Republican, many pundits are predicting he will switch parties and run for re-election next year as a Democrat. But, Specter remains anathema to the Democratic Party's dominant left wing activists who remember his brutal handling of Anita Hill during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings.
Specter had done an amazing job over the years straddling the ideological fence. The problem is those who sit on a fence usually end up getting shot at by both sides, and that is what is happening today. Conservatives in the GOP will grind him up over the stimulus; liberals in the Democratic Party will oppose him because of Hill and the votes he has cast over the years to try and appease Republican conservatives. His best chance might actually be to take a page from Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman's play book and run as an independent.
And, Specter's biggest test of all lies ahead: his vote on the deceptively-named Employee Free Choice Act, or Card Check. A vote in favor of allowing Card Check to go to the floor of the U.S. Senate would seal his fate within the GOP. Business groups would make Specter public enemy number one. The combination of an enraged conservative base and a vengeful business community would make it impossible for Specter to win an election for dog catcher in the GOP. A vote against Card Check would animate the labor unions, whose support Specter has always had, and doom him in the General Election.
All of this leaves Arlen Specter without a political home. And, after a career in the U.S. Senate of nearly three decades, his next stop could be the retirement home.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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