The big news of the week here in Washington is that long-time Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter will be leaving the Republican Party to join the Democrats, in large part to avoid a tough primary challenge from a conservative opponent. While others are focused on how the move will impact upcoming votes on healthcare and other pending legislation, I’m more interested in how seamless the transition for Specter appears to be and how readily the Democrats are willing to take on a lawmaker who backed the very worst excesses of the Bush administration — yet further evidence that switching between the two political parties requires as much philosophical introspection as switching from Coke to Pepsi.
Oh sure, Specter will bemoan how he didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Party left him — that’s to be expected. Yet even the cable news blowhards accept he is switching not because of deep-seeded ideological disagreements but out of of fear he may lose power (the prime motivator for all politicians), which should be a lesson to Specter’s newfound Democratic allies: don’t trust this man. Eager to capture the spotlight, Specter, like any other politician, is much less eager to fulfill what is (ostensibly) his role as a lawmaker: to uphold and defend the Constitution.
In September 2006, when the Senate was about to vote on the Military Commissions Act — which abolished the right of habeas corpus for those imprisoned by the U.S. military — I listened as Specter told me and other reporters outside the Senate chamber that the bill was “patently unconstitutional on its face” and that he wasn’t going to vote for it. “I’m not going to do it,” he said.
Six hours later and Specter voted for it, and not because he suddenly came to view the bill as constitutional, but rather he decided, as he told The Washington Post, “to back the bill because it has several good items, ‘and the court will clean it up’ by striking the habeas corpus provisions.”
While expecting the court to clean up the unconstitutional details of the bills you help to pass is . . . cute . . . it’s not at all consistent with the oath Specter took “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” By voting for a bill he admits is “unconstitutional on its face,” he was most certainly not defending the constitution, and he certainly did no favor for those imprisoned without trial in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Furthermore, it is not the judiciary’s role to be the One and Only arbiter of what is and isn’t constitutional. Rather, all three branches of government are supposed to uphold the constitution and guard against usurpations from the other branches.
While it may be an imperfect anachronism that has failed miserably at one of its chief purported goals — limiting the size and scope of the state — political leaders claim the “consent of the governed” in part by expressing their fidelity to the allegedly binding “social contract” contained in the Constitution. Perhaps they should be held to their word. In the case of Specter, the violation of his avowed duty is made all the worse by the fact that he knew the bill he was supporting ran counter to the constitution and rights given lip service by even tyrannical monarchs since at least the Magna Carta. As Salon’s Glenn Greenwald writes, “Arlen Specter is one of the worst, most soul-less, most belief-free individuals in politics.”
Pennsylvania voters: the guy belongs in a cell, not in some DC steakhouse dining with corporate lobbyists. At least give someone else a chance to screw you over.