Arlen being Arlen



When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked yesterday to comment on Arlen Specter's decision to quit the GOP and become the 59th Democratic senator, she told CNN: "Very exciting, very exciting for the American people, because now we can get things done."

Not so fast. Pelosi and other triumphalist Democrats are conveniently forgetting a very important fact: Specter by nature is a slick operator who is bound to frustrate and confound his new best friends, just as he did the friends who have now become his foes.

I take Specter at his word when he says, "I have taken each issue one at a time...I'm going to vote the way I see it." Anyone who assumes that the Obama domestic agenda will now sail through the Senate, just because Specter has switched sides, is surely dreaming.

It's probably true that, in his votes on some issues, Specter will tilt Democratic more often than in the past - especially if he feels threatened from the left in a 2010 Senate Democratic primary, and especially if he needs Obama, Joe Biden, and Ed Rendell to clear the field for him. (I suspect, for instance, that despite Specter's stated opposition to the big labor bill that would make it easier for unions to organize, he will ultimately find a way, perhaps in compromise language, to ensure that Pennsylvania labor is on his side in '10.)   

But, as the saying goes, character is destiny. Specter has always been a complicated contrarian, and that's not likely to change. To best assess the new Democratic Specter, check out the old Republican Specter. Several examples:

Back in 1999, when the Republican Senate had to determine whether it was a good idea to eject Bill Clinton from office because he'd lied under oath about sex, the basic choice was to vote "guilty" or "not guilty." Most Republicans chose the former, while Democrats chose the latter. But Specter came up with his own solution: he said he was voting for "not proven," a middle-way option not available under Senate rules, but one that Specter had plucked...from the legal code of Scotland. I kid you not. (A Specter spokesman insisted that Specter's stance was based on deep convictions, not political calculations.)

Now fast forward to 2006, when the Republican Senate was pondering a bill, sought by the Bush White House, to loosen up the rules governing the prosecution of terror suspects in front of military tribunals. Specter was vocally upset about the Bush proposals, which included the use of evidence seized in this country without a search warrant, the use of evidence obtained via cruel and inhuman treatment, and limited options for suspects to challenge their own detention. Specter went public, declaring: "What this bill seeks to do is set back basic rights by some 900 years," referring to Magna Carta, which indeed established the right of a suspect to contest his jailing.

Then Specter turned around and voted Yes on the bill.

Hey, this is what many moderates do. They prize nuance over party loyalty. They give a bit to both sides, without quite satisfying either. And, with respect to Specter, here's a fresh example:

During his press conference yesterday, Specter took a moment to plug his latest literary contribution. He said, "I have an article in The New York Review of Books, on executive power. I haven't found anyone yet who has read it."

Well, I've read it.

The headline on the piece, in the latest issue of the magazine, reads: "The Need to Roll Back Presidential Power Grabs." Presumably, he brought up his article yesterday because he believes it conveys his strong unshakable convictions on that issue. But one particular passage, deep in the piece, gives me a far different impression.

He writes about how important it is that citizens have the right to sue in court for any privacy invasions they may have suffered from Bush's warrantless wiretap program. Indeed, he writes, during the Senate proceedings in the spring of 2008 "my chief concern was to keep the way to the courts open, as a means to check executive excesses."

At the time, the Senate was debating a Bush "reform" bill that was essentially designed to loosen the rules for future surveillance programs - making it easier (as I mentioned the other day) for the executive to snoop on Americans at home. Specter, in his article, lists all the tough amendments that he offered, with the aim of ensuring that citizens would still be able to sue the telecommunications companies for any wrongs suffered during the initial Bush snooping.

Then he writes: "Despite my fight to keep the courts open, in the end all my amendments were defeated. Nevertheless, as I said I would, I ultimately voted for the reform bill."

So there it is again: A little yes, a little no, a dollop of principle, a bit of straddle.

To rephrase what Red Sox fans used to say about Manny Ramirez, this is just Arlen being Arlen. Now the Democrats can reap the rewards - and the headaches.