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Friday, 21 May 2010 19:00

Arlen Specter: The Death of Mr. Magic Bullet

Well, at least the man who created the see-through cover story about President Kennedy's death is finally gone. Unfortunately, on the evidence of their ill-advised tango with him, the Democratic Party is not even close to being resuscitated. Specter and the Warren Commission did that good of a job in beginning the funeral, writes Jim DiEugenio of Arlen Specter's electoral defeat.


It finally happened. One of the most blatant political opportunists in contemporary American history tried to pull one too many tricks. Except this time, someone was there to call him on it. On May 18th, Arlen Specter's inglorious 30 year reign as a Pennsylvania senator finally came to an overdue end. Except, unlike what he was promised by his odd Democratic partners, he met his Waterloo in the primary election. It wasn't supposed to be that way for the maestro of the Single Bullshit Theory.

single ballot
Courtesy Richard Bartholomew
Copyright 2010 Bartholoviews Cartoons

As we reported in April and May, some of the heavy hitters in the Democratic Party had promised Arlen Specter a clear field in the primary if he switched parties and ran as a Democrat. As we noted then, this was a dumb decision made by myopic men – Gov. Ed Rendell, President Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, and Senator Harry Reid. They were so short-sighted that they could not see the forest for the trees. The reason Specter opted out of the GOP was simple: he knew he could not win the Republican primary against Pat Toomey. So the question then became: if he could not beat Toomey in the primary, was he a good bet to beat him in the general election? Probably not, since most Democrats would be lukewarm about the turncoat, and he would have little GOP support after defecting. So from the Democrats' point of view, would it not be better to back a true Democrat who would not have those problems and therefore stood a better shot at beating the well-funded right-wing Republican?

The inside-the-Beltway crowd didn't see it that way. To them, it's all a club card game anyway. If Arlen was willing to bend, why not take him? After all, he's one of the guys. He's been in Washington for 30 years. So the Powers That Be decided to arrange a strange deal with the author of the Warren Commission's Single Bullet Fantasy. This was especially disturbing to many at CTKA. Why? Because it was the endorsement of then Senator Obama at American University by the late Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy which gave him a rocket boost against Hillary Clinton in his race for the Democratic nomination. The other point that was bothersome was that, as noted above, it was unnecessary. The Democrats could have won the seat without Specter.

Evidently, Representative Joe Sestak wasn't in on the deal. Very shortly after the nauseating announcement was made in Washington, Sestak put out the word that he was seriously thinking of challenging Mr. Magic Bullet. According to Jerry Policoff, CTKA's man on the ground in Pennsylvania, the White House and the Democratic Establishment did all they could to discourage Sestak from running, and ruining their shameful bargain. According to Policoff, they gave Sestak the carrot and stick treatment: they offered him the Secretary of Navy job and when he said no they threatened to wreck his political career. Which sounds pretty much like the kind of politics played by Governor Rendell, who is a Richard Daley type. When Sestak refused to back off, the state media – largely played by Rendell – tried to picture him as Don Quixote: a deluded man tilting at windmills. You know, he didn't know he was DOA. As he likes to do, Specter basked in the temporary national limelight. Obama praised him for an act of "courage" in switching parties, helped him raise money, and even said to a crowd at a rally, "I love Arlen Specter." (The Daily Beast, 5/19/10)

It was all an illusion staged by Rendell and his ill-informed Washington cohorts. Part of the illusion was this: the Democratic electorate in Pennsylvania is much more progressive than its leadership i.e. Rendell. The other part is that Sestak is a good campaigner who could raise considerable amounts of money. This helped raise his local profile statewide rather quickly. The third part is that Specter is an old man whose two bouts with cancer have left him both looking his age, and not as mentally sharp as he was. Therefore, the more people saw of the two, the better Sestak started to look to them. Another advantage was that Specter had had a difficult time beating Toomey in the 2004 GOP primary. Being the stronger campaigner, Sestak looked like he had a better chance at winning in the fall.

So, according to Policoff, Rendell's illusion began to slowly dissipate. And when Sestak began to close the huge gap between he and Specter – which once was as much as 40 points – more and more Democratic Clubs and local committees began to break from Rendell's machine and endorse Sestak. In fact, Policoff's own Lancaster country committee did just that.

Sestak hoarded a lot of his money until he had cut Specter's lead down to the 15-20 point range. He then unleashed a flurry of TV ads that were well-chosen. One was a highly effective two-parter which showed just how duplicitous Specter was. It first depicted Specter shaking hands with George Bush Jr; during which Bush calls Specter a team player he can count on. The trailing ad was Obama shouting out his love for Specter and saying, "You know he's going to fight for you!" Another ad showed Specter essentially saying that he had switched parties in order to get re-elected. Sestak then came in to say that Specter's conversion was merely political and done to save one person's job – his own. This whole series of ads was powerful in its effect. Especially since Specter had little defense against it. What epitomized the opportunism was when Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Why? Because Specter had voted against her as Solicitor General. But since he was now a Democrat, he said he was open to voting for her. Unlike with his lies and deceptions on the Warren Commission, Specter was out in the open, left unprotected by the political establishment and the media.

Towards the end, Specter tried to ask for help from the White House. But sensing the political winds, they offered none. They understood they had erred. And they were not going to double down just because they had given their word to him. In the last week, Specter tried to explain his switch by saying that the GOP had moved to the right, and he had always actually been a Democrat at heart. He even tried to invoke the memory of JFK when he said, "I have been a John F. Kennedy Democrat. I have returned to the party of my roots. What's wrong with that." (NY Times, 5/11/10) To anyone who has studied the arc of his career, for Specter to make such a comment is nauseating. If Specter had really been a JFK Democrat, he would never have agreed to mastermind the Commission's medical and ballistics cover up about his death. Secondly, it was after he won the Philadelphia DA job in 1965, as a registered Democrat on the Republican ticket, that he then switched to the GOP. He figured it would be easier to hold it that way.

So Arlen Specter got his ultimate comeuppance. Much too late of course. He had already done a lot of damage. The startling thing is that he still wanted to be in the arena at all. The man has been through a debilitating struggle with cancer. He has been re-elected four times. He is 80 years old. But evidently, Specter had grown used to being in the spotlight and enjoyed having an easy job with perks that paid well.

Of course, what this says about today's Democratic Party is quite disturbing. Why the White House would want to be associated with the likes of Specter and Blanche Lincoln is baffling. That they would cooperate in a shabby deal with the likes of Specter tells us a lot about what the Democratic Party has become since 1968. As I wrote in the Afterword to The Assassinations, after the death of Robert Kennedy, the Democratic Party split in half between its liberal and moderate wings. Richard Nixon knew how to capitalize on the split, hence his infamous Southern Strategy. The Democrats – now toothless because of the deaths of JFK, MLK, Malcolm X, and RFK – lost its bearings. It, and the country, now drifted to the center – and then to the right. Therefore the only two Democratic presidents between 1968 and 2008 were the southerners, Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Leadership Council's own Bill Clinton.

Obama and his advisers don't read a lot of history. For him to back both Specter and Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln shows a White House and president out of tune with the times and its own electorate. That is proven by what Sestak and Lt. Governor Bill Halter have done in spite of the aid to their opponents by the White House and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. If the White House and the DSCC had either remained neutral – which they should in a primary – or backed the insurgents, Sestak would have won even bigger, and there would likely be no run-off between Halter and Lincoln. He would have won the primary outright.

But as I wrote, the Democratic Party has never really recovered from the assassinations of the sixties. And Obama is not the transformational candidate many hoped he would be. In fact, he is a cautious and pragmatic man. The new president had a truly golden opportunity when he got elected. With the country facing the biggest economic blowout since 1929, with all three pillars of the economy on their back – housing, autos, and the stock market – he had the opportunity to be another Franklin Roosevelt. He could have launched a Second New Deal to get America back to work. He could have revived the economy and eliminated forever the nation's reliance on fossil fuels. In fact, as revealed by GOP operative James Pinkerton, this is what the Republican establishment truly feared. For how could they vote against giving laid off Americans real jobs in a new energy market? And if it worked, and they had voted against it, they would be discredited in a way they could not easily recover from.

Much to the relief of the Republicans, the White House did not make that choice. Which makes the backroom deal with Specter kind of predictable. Though still reprehensible. Which indicates that the Democratic Party is still sleepwalking through its nightmare. So entranced that they were not even aware they were dancing with a man who helped cause it.

Well, at least the man who created the see-through cover story about President Kennedy's death is finally gone. Unfortunately, on the evidence of their ill-advised tango with him, the Democratic Party is not even close to being resuscitated. Specter and the Warren Commission did that good of a job in beginning the funeral.

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