Political suicide, GOP-style

The final chapter of the late Arlen Specter's career illustrates the mind-set that grips Obama-era Republicans

Published October 15, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

It’s not as if Arlen Specter, who passed away at age 82 on Sunday, hadn’t infuriated Republicans before Barack Obama became president.

He’d provided one of the few GOP “no” vote on Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination in 1987, refused to join his party in the push to remove Bill Clinton from office, and barely survived a primary challenge from Pat Toomey in 2004. There was also his brief bid for the GOP’s 1996 presidential nomination, which is best remembered for the complete lack of interest it generated.

Specter took an opportunist’s view of political parties, launching his career as a Democrat in Philadelphia, switching to the GOP when it became a convenient vehicle for advancement, then returning to the Democratic fold in 2009 in a final, futile bid for political survival. He was never a natural fit in either party, but by the end there was far less room for him in the GOP.

That last point is key, because to understand the unraveling of Specter’s Senate career is to understand the psychology that has gripped the Republican Party in the Obama era and the strategy that the GOP has embraced to fight him.

Long before he was sworn in, Obama and his team were hard at work on their first major task, a stimulus program that would fill in some of the economic crater that Wall Street’s meltdown had created. There was at least some reason to believe this would be a bipartisan venture. Republicans had supported stimulus programs before (including just months earlier under George W. Bush) and the country was facing a genuine crisis. And Obama was ready to include Republican-friendly provisions, including substantial tax cuts.

But very quickly, a consensus emerged among Republican opinion leaders: Just say no – to the stimulus and to anything else Obama would put forward over the next four years. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been surprising. It was a repeat of how the GOP had responded the last time the country had elected a new Democratic president. When Bill Clinton came to office in 1993, he faced a united and relentless opposition that killed his stimulus bill, forced him to pass his budget on a party-line vote, and stymied his healthcare push. Conservative leaders of that era, and more than a few elected Republicans, branded Clinton a radical and openly challenged his legitimacy.

Obama found himself facing the exact same opposition, which immediately imperiled his stimulus program. Conservative activists, media personalities and interest group leaders whipped up the GOP’s base against it as one Republican lawmaker after another fell into line. For Republicans in Congress, there were two compelling reasons to embrace the “just say no” strategy: 1) it kept them on the right side of the party base, minimizing the chances that they’d face a primary challenge; and 2) it held the promise of a speedy return to power; Republicans were well aware that unanimous opposition to Clinton had lowered his approval ratings and helped create the 1994 GOP midterm wave.

The fate of the stimulus rested on the few remaining moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter. Each was inclined to support it, but each had reservations – particularly over the price tag, which they ultimately brought down to under $800 billion. But in terms of raw politics, Specter was the one who was really going out on a limb. Collins and Snowe are well-known figures in a small, politically independent state – making each more likely to survive any primary challenge theoretically capable of running and winning as an independent if necessary – and neither would be up in 2010.

Specter, though, would be. Even before the stimulus vote, it was clear he’d face another GOP primary challenge in ’10, probably from Toomey again. Given the mood of the GOP base and how close his ’04 margin had been, Specter’s decision to vote “yes” basically sealed his fate. There was no way he could survive a Republican primary after voting for one of Obama’s signature achievements, which is why he ended up switching back to the Democratic Party a few months later. This gave him a fighting chance of winning another term, although the ghosts of his Republican past (most notably his treatment of Anita Hill) and the naked opportunism behind the move ultimately doomed him, and Specter was defeated in the Democratic primary by Joe Sestak.

In “The New New Deal,” his definitive account of Obama’s stimulus program, Michael Grunwald includes this telling anecdote about a conversation Specter had with another Republican senators just after casting his “yes” vote:

In the Senate cloakroom … one of his Republican colleagues said: Arlen, I’m proud of you.

“Then why don’t you vote with me?” the grouchy Pennsylvanian asked.

That will get me a primary, the senator replied.

“You know I’m getting a primary,” Specter snapped.

If Specter had made the same choice as his colleague and gone along with the “just say no” approach, he might have lost the GOP primary to Toomey anyway. He was already viewed with suspicion and hostility by many conservatives. We’ll never know for sure what would have happened. But the choice he did make was incompatible with the GOP’s Obama-era strategy, and Specter was smart enough to know it.

Nor has anything changed since the stimulus drama. Since 2009, the Republican opposition to Obama has been unyielding. The party was rewarded for this with a midterm landslide in 2010, and now its presidential nominee is attacking Obama for failing to create any bipartisan consensus as president. It’s a deeply cynical strategy, but to judge from the latest polls, it’s one that might still pay off for the GOP on Nov. 6.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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