The latest conviction recalibration



On the day that Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter announced his conversion to the Democratic party - this was April 28, 2009 - he nevertheless declared that he would stiff Barack Obama by blocking the president's nominee for a crucially important Justice Department job. As Specter put it at the time, "I'm opposed to the nominee for Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel, Dawn Johnsen."

Yet here was Specter in a statement released yesterday: "I had a second extensive meeting with Ms. Johnsen, and have been prepared to support her nomination when it reaches the Senate floor."

The Keystone chameleon strikes again. It turns out he's for her after being against her. So what happened?

Joe Sestak happened.

Here's a handy translation of Specter's new statement: "Early last year, when I was a Republican faced with running against a conservative challenger in a Republican Senate primary, I had to position myself on the right. One way to do that was to oppose Dawn Johnsen for that key Justice job. The OLC director gives the president legal advice on whether his actions are constitutional. Johnsen had been vocally critical of the Bush era torture memos, and she had repeatedly attacked the Bush White House for abuses of power. Conservatives didn't want her to get that job, therefore I didn't want her to get that job. And I figured I could stick with my opposition even after becoming a Democrat, because, hey, it looked like I had smooth sailing for re-election in 2010. But then Congressman Sestak messed things up by challenging me in a Democratic primary this spring - which now means I have to position myself over on the left. One way to do that is to support Dawn Johnsen. Liberal primary voters want her to get that job, and they might defect to Sestak if I oppose her getting that job, so therefore I now want her to get that job. I have therefore recalibrated my convictions, and I am pleased to have done that."

Specter's decision to essentially become the 60th Senate vote for Johnsen, a law professor who worked in high OLC positions from 1993 to 1998, virtually clears the path for Senate confirmation, after a wait of nearly a year. Most interestingly, the senator's switcheroo was announced just 24 hours after underdog Sestak needled him in an open letter. Sestak said to Specter:

"The Office of Legal Counsel is one of the most important offices in the Department of Justice, and determines the legality of actions by the president and the executive branch. Because of your obstruction, President Obama is trying to keep the country safe from terrorism, end two wars, and close the prison at Guantanamo without a critical legal adviser....As a Democrat, you will need to repair this record, and allowing Professor Johnsen to lead the OLC will be a good start."

Sestak's camp was trying to set up a win-win scenario: If Specter had stuck with his previous position and said no to Johnsen, he would have risked ticking off liberal primary voters and confirming their suspicions that he was still a Republican obstructionist; yet even if Specter said yes to Johnsen, he risks confirming the widely held suspicion that he's a poll-driven weathervane with no core beliefs.

Specter chose the second option, mirroring his recent flips on labor reform (he's now for it after being against it) and on a health reform public option (ditto). from the perspective of liberal Demoocratic voters in Pennsylvania, Sestak has already performed a valuable service by nudging the incumbent closer to the party orthodoxy on key issues.

The question for the challenger, however, is whether a majority of voters will ultimately view Specter's transparently "political" maneuvers as a fatal character flaw. People in elective office do this sort of thing all the time. When Kirsten Gillibrand was elevated to a Senate seat in New York last year, she quickly moved to the left, abandoning the conservative stances that befit her upstate House district - and now it appears she will be challenged in a '10 Democratic primary by Harold Ford, who is suddenly recalibrating the more conservative convictions that he held during a previous incarnation as a congressman from Tennessee (Ford on gay marriage, 2006: "I oppose gay marriage"; Ford on the same issue, 2010: "I don't think it's a great leap to go from civil unions to gay marriage").

What Specter is doing, what he just did again with Dawn Johnsen, can certainly be spun as evidence of no core convictions. But voters might just as easily view his behavior as evidence that he is responsive to the views of his Democratic constituents. Specter is obviously betting on the latter. Flip flops aren't pretty, but the guy is a survivor.


Granted, most of the folks who flock to Fox News probably don't care a whit whether Sarah Palin is qualified to opine on the air. Still, for those of us who hew to at least a few empirical standards, it's quite astounding that a major network would hire somebody who, in her first appearance last night, freely confessed that she was ignorant about one of the seminal events of this young century.

While chatting with Bill O'Reilly, Palin confirmed a passage in the new book Game Change, which reports that, as late as the fall of 2008, she still mistakenly suspected that Saddam Hussein had plotted the attacks on 9/11, and said so repeatedly during the campaign. As she confessed last night, "You know what, on that, I did talk a lot to Steve Schmidt about the history of the war and about where, perhaps, the 9/11 terrorists came from and could there have been any connection to Saddam."

That's right, the person chosen by John McCain to be one heartbeat away from the presidency had no idea that the issue had been settled years earlier in various forums, most notably the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which had concluded way back in 2004 that al Qaeda and Hussein had never established any "collaborative relationship."

OK, so she whiffed on some of the big stuff. Presumably, as a national broadcast commentator, she would do better on the small stuff, like the moment when she dissed 60 Minutes. The other night, the CBS show aired a segment in which McCain aide Schmidt recalled her dearth of knowledge during debate prep; while chatting with
O'Reilly, Palin insisted the show was small potatoes, because in her words, "the American people are immediately neutralizing programs like 60 Minutes."

"Immediately neutralizing?" Wrong again. In the empirical world of fact, the show's ratings are up 12 percent to 15 percent over last fall, and last November it twice finished first in its time slot.

The other day, Fox's executive vice president for programming said he wasn't concerned that Palin would make false assertions on the air. Given that standard, and given the reality that buzz trumps fact in today's polarized environment, she's off to a great start.