The specter of Specter’s defection to Democrats

Posted May 01, 2009, at 5:29 p.m.

The classic definition of news is often one attributed to New York Sun city editor John Bogart in the late 19th century. When a dog bites a man it is not news, because it is not unusual, Bogart reportedly counseled his young reporters. However, should man turn the tables on dog and sink his teeth firmly into the flank of the snarling beast, well then you’ve got yourself the makings of a great news story, kid.

When Arlen Specter — the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania formerly known as the Republican senator from Pennsylvania — jumped ship Tuesday, it probably seemed more a dog-bites-man news story than the opposite to conservative Republicans who must have wondered what had taken the man so long to defect to the dark side.

(Readers unaware of Specter’s sudden transformation from Republican to Democrat may catch the gist of the story by checking out Bangor Daily News editorial cartoonist George Danby’s timely cartoon in the Thursday newspaper. The sketch features the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant perched aboard a seesaw labeled “U.S. Senate.” The donkey says to the elephant, “Arlen Specter has switched parties.” The elephant replies, “He’s become a Republican?”)

Like Maine’s own Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, the moderate Specter, 79, and seeking a sixth term in 2010, has long been considered by conservatives in his former party to be Republican in name only — a “RINO” in modern political parlance — and as likely to vote with Democrats as with Republicans on any given issue.

The obvious news angle latched on to by most reporters writing about Specter’s defection was that it had pushed Senate Democrats to within one vote of the 60 needed to overcome filibusters and enact key components of President Obama’s plan to save the world.

The 60th vote will come when Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota is seated after his seemingly inevitable victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman is certified. Presuming, of course, that the relatively young Franken doesn’t die of old age before a marathon recount process is completed.

Although Specter’s switcheroo may be change that Democrats can believe in, it hardly represents a sea change in congressional politics. Franken’s contemplated victory might be more significant in the Senate political equation.

Specter, along with Collins and Snowe, famously voted with Democrats to help enact the $787 billion Obama economic stimulus legislation earlier this year. Whether that vote had come from the old Republican Specter or from the new-look Democrat Specter, the end result had Franken been on board and voting would have been the same, without the help of Maine’s two Senators.

If Democrats stick together in future votes that seek to keep President Obama’s agenda filibuster-proof, they wouldn’t need a pivotal vote from Collins or Snowe, who have been approached about changing parties.

But should Specter turn out to be a DINO — a Democrat in name only — who can say what might transpire? Although he insisted his decision was one of principle rather than political ambition, Specter conceded that he switched parties because he believes he cannot win a Republican primary next year in a party grown increasingly conservative.

As well, he promised news reporters Tuesday that he won’t be “an automatic 60th vote” for Senate Democrats. As evidence, he cited his opposition to “card check” legislation favored by Obama and the Democrats to make it easier for workers to form unions. The bill is organized labor’s top priority this year. Time will tell whether closer association with Democrats will soften Specter for the kill on that one.

In the meantime, the bottom line seems elementary, my dear Watson: At the end of the day, whether you call Arlen Specter a Republican, a Democrat or late for dinner, he will still be Arlen Specter. Like many professional politicians seeking to hold on to cushy taxpayer-funded jobs, he likely will do what is best for Arlen Specter, political label be damned.

A politician by any other name is, after all, still a politician. Most anything they do in furtherance of self-preservation generally does not come as shocking man-bites-dog news.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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