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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

That’s a croc

Published: May 2, 2009
Section: Opinions

Tuesday turned out to be a banner day for reptile discoveries. Excited biologists announced that a fourth Mallee worm lizard was discovered in the state of South Australia. Until recently, it had been assumed that the Mallee could be found only in the state of Victoria in Australia’s southeast. Bryan Haywood, who works for South Australia’s forestry service, was responsible for the find. “I couldn’t believe my luck,” he is reported to have said.

Not to be upstaged, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter also announced a discovery. “I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party,” he told assembled journalists.

Specter cited a few examples of this philosophical shift to explain why he was slithering back to the party of his younger days. He called his crossing of party lines with two other Republican senators to vote in favor of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (better known as the stimulus package) “indispensable…to avoid the possibility of a 1929-type depression.” He said that he had “surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls,” but hissed that he had “found that the prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak.” Finally, noting that “one of the key interests I have is medical research,” Specter hailed “the increases in funding for the National Institutes of Health” which made up part of the stimulus package that President Barack Obama’s administration had pressed Congress to adopt. Those increases, he said, had “saved or prolonged many lives, including my own.” Specter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2005.

The Obama administration made no comment on the Mallee worm lizard discovery. But Vice-President Joseph Biden welcomed his “old friend” Specter into his new place in the political taxonomy, calling him a “man of remarkable courage and integrity.” According to Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, the president called Specter and “told the Senator… that he had the president’s full support, and that he was thrilled to have him as a member of the Democratic Party.” He also indicated that the Obama administration would support Specter in the Democratic primary election in Pennsylvania, where Governor Edward Rendell was said to be moving behind the scenes to clear the field of Democrats who might oppose Specter in the primary. The administration claims that Specter told Obama that he had evolved into a Democrat on Tuesday morning. Gibbs asserted that “that’s the first the President had heard that he [Specter] was switching parties.”

That explanation seems doubtful. Instead, it’s more likely that a deal was struck several months ago that gave to Specter and to the Obama administration what each wanted. Specter, for his part, represents more than 12 million Pennsylvanians, but represents one of them much better than the rest. Given his long tenure in the Senate and his longstanding position as one of the Senate’s opportunistic swing voters amenable to persuasion (or, if you prefer, being bought off with concessions from his Senate colleagues), one would think that Pennsylvanians would be driving on smoother federal roads, have jobs at more federal work sites and projects, and be able, in general, to expect more federal inputs into its economy than other states. But Pennsylvania’s share of federal spending, measured in a variety of ways, is unremarkable, and most of it comes in the form of non-discretionary federal spending that Pennsylvania gets not because of Specter’s efforts, but because it has a lot of old and poor people. Recently, following a pattern that he’s followed in the past few years of seeking more money for the National Institutes of Health, Specter sold his support for the stimulus package to the administration for the price of a few billions of dollars to be added to the budget of that entity. That sounds like a noble deed. But the NIH does not have facilities in Pennsylvania, and only a small part of the research that some of Specter’s extra money will fund will be conducted there. Specter’s diversion of money took place at a time when many Pennsylvanians are in dire need. His clout was not entirely wasted on obtaining the NIH money, but in large part, the benefits of his clout did not accrue to Pennsylvanians.

But Specter has said that he believes that he benefits personally from the NIH’s work. The agency has spent increasing amounts of money funding research on the disease from which he suffers. The 79-year-old Senator – who is seeking re-election in 2010 despite his health problems – sees its work as giving him a better chance to survive. Whether one is hot- or cold-blooded, it’s only natural to want to avoid death. But even if the NIH is a worthy cause, and even if no one can blame Specter for wanting to live, one might still conclude that he served himself rather than his constituents.

Specter’s desire to survive is political, as well. He deserted the Democrats in the 1960s in order to gain the Republican nomination for District Attorney of Philadelphia. Especially during the later stages of his career as a Republican Senator, he gained concessions from leading Republicans by threatening to revisit the tactics of Benedict Arnold. Now, with the rise of a Democratic tide, he’s coming back, because his deal with the administration will allow him to keep power. According to recent polls, Pennsylvania Republicans prefer Toomey to Specter by a margin of more than 20 percent. By getting Obama’s (and, it seems, Governor Rendell’s) “full support,” Specter can rest assured that he will win the Democratic primary. He will then face Toomey, who will in all likelihood run too far to the right to win a statewide election in 2010. As a member of the majority party in the Senate, his position in committees will also improve.

Specter, then, got disease research, certain re-election, and perhaps a committee chairmanship. What did the administration get? For one thing, it got Specter’s vote on the stimulus package. Whether the extra government debt that that measure produced was worthwhile in the long run remains to be seen. But as I have previously argued, the package was not really designed to put many people who need work back to work. And its tax cuts, although more fairly parceled out than former President George W. Bush’s, still enter the hands of most recipients as “stimulus” and tax-refund checks that will do no more than get them past their next month’s round of rent or mortgage or credit card payments. Rather than “Recovery” or “Reinvestment,” the stimulus package funds politically well-placed businesses that won’t employ many people, and temporarily puts off a dip in Obama’s popularity. Specter, who endorsed Bush’s handouts to businesses, his irresponsible tax cuts, and his “stimulus checks” of 2008 (the last of which was endorsed by Congressional Democrats who also hoped to manufacture popularity for themselves) when it was convenient for him to do so, would have no problem getting “in line” behind Obama.

To be sure, Specter’s shedding of his Republican skin also puts the Senate’s Democrats – in combination with the two Senators unaffiliated with a party who caucus with them – within one vote of a “filibuster-proof” majority of 60 in the Senate. If a court declares that Minnesota’s Democratic candidate for Senate, Al Franken, defeated Republican incumbent Norm Coleman in November, then in theory, the Democrats can pass any measure along party lines. That will help Obama pass legislation.

But will it “change” anything, as Obama promised? I think not. That Obama is “thrilled” to give “full support” to a Republican, and to deny Pennsylvanians the chance to choose a legitimate Democrat who will beat the unelectable Toomey and represent them, suggests a willingness to settle for the status quo embodied in his deal with Specter. And although Specter clearly has a keen sense of where his bread is buttered, his presence in the Democratic Senate majority will serve to water down initiatives favored by the left and force concessions from it to keep him on board. The potentially “filibuster-proof” majority, after all, is only as filibuster-proof as its most conservative members.

But that just might suit Obama. His administration, as this column has suggested in the past, moved from the very outset of his presidency well to the political right of the positions that his campaign hinted he might take on including immediately pressing issues like the economy and our nation’s costly wars, and even on issues like torture by allied governments and private contractors or the repudiation of Bush’s doctrine respecting the preemptive use of military force. On the question of openness to international trade that exacerbates domestic inequalities and leaves too many people not working or working in low-paying service industry jobs, he is indistinguishable from a Republican.

Against that backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that Obama denied Pennsylvanians a chance at change by cutting a dubious deal with an undeserving ancient reptile, one likely to keep him in office until he truly is a specter. In a manner of speaking, that’s a croc.