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Too many empty teases

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Last Tuesday, Pennsylvania was a focal point of national politics. In this week’s Centre Square essay, Chris Satullo looks at the theories as to why Arlen Specter lost the Democratic Senate primary.

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Last Tuesday, voters scrawled a period to end the run-on sentence that was Arlen Specter’s public career.

In a long Senate tenure, Specter became a master of many things.

Such as: arcane Senate procedures. Foreign policy nuance. Bringing home the bacon.

Above all, he mastered the clever policy straddle, positioning himself between partisan camps as the potentially pivotal vote, the man who must be courted.

These skills are far more valued among the cognoscenti of Capitol Hill than amid an anxious, revenge-minded electorate.

For all these reasons, and many more, Arlen Specter is soon to become a FORMER senator.

In whipping Specter handily, Joe Sestak, a little-known congressman, actually exploited his lack of name recognition.

Because few statewide knew him, Sestak was free to style himself as an insurgent, outsider, “real” Democrat.

That’s a pretty neat trick for a guy who is a sitting congressman and a former admiral who logged plenty of Pentagon time. And for someone who first won office in Delaware County in 2006 by running as a pro-military centrist.

You’ll soon hear Sestak described as an extreme liberal, a radical etc etc. This is hilarious. He’s a garden-variety East Coast Democrat.

Listening to my national media colleagues, I was amazed at the wrong-headed “single-bullet” theories they pushed to explain Specter’s woes. They so desperately wanted this idiosyncratic Pennsylvania election to fit into some predetermined narrative they were trying to flog, about the Tea Party, about Barack Obama, or whatever.

This loss, though, was a river fed by many tributaries. Sestak whipped Specter in part because Specter cluelessly played the role Sestak needed him to play: Beltway insider, career pol, opportunist.

Here’s another factor I think mattered a lot to many of the activist Democrats who actually bothered to vote. Arlen Specter had teased them and let them down too many times. He’d posture and posture as though he were one Republican they could lure to their side, but in the end he’d fold. This happened so often: on environmental issues galore. Tax cuts. Terror trials and surveillance. Supreme Court justices.

It all became too many empty teases to forgive. And it cost Arlen Specter the thing he valued most: his Senate seat.


  • Karen says:

    The intent of this commentary seemed less to explain Arlen Specter’s defeat than to try to discredit both the winner and loser of the primary. Are you stumping for Pat Toomey?

    • Eric Hamell says:

      Believe it or not, people sometimes say things simply because they think they’re true, not because they’re tailored to advance a partisan agenda. Besides, how many people who listen to WHYY would ever vote for Toomey?

  • Eric Hamell says:

    The claim that Specter valued his Senate seat more than anything else seems off-base. Surely, if this were true, it would have been much easier for him to cater to the right-wing base of the GOP; he had 36 years in which to make that shift after leaving the Democrats, after all.

    Instead, it appears that he used his political savvy to compromise on those issues which were not questions of principle for him, so that he wouldn’t lose his seat over the many times he stuck his neck out for things that ARE principles for him.

    I was torn for a long time on how to vote in this race because, while Sestak is better on labor issues, Specter is better on Afghanistan. On Monday I chose Specter because he, unlike Sestak, was willing to pledge his support if the other man won the primary. This, together with Sestak’s performance in the Navy, goes to the question of temperament.

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