The Specter Campaign
A rejoinder to Hugh Hewitt.


Ramesh Ponnuru

I’m enjoying debating Hugh Hewitt about the wisdom of preventing Arlen Specter from becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is not just for all the reasons Hewitt is always worth reading. It’s because you never know what he’s going to throw at you next. If you’re on the anti-Specter side, at one moment you will be accused of plotting a coup. Next you will be told you are missing the lessons of the Roman republic. There may be a moral to be drawn from the battle of Lepanto, too; who knows?

Hewitt’s latest thoughts on the Specter controversy can be found in posts on his website and in an article on The Weekly Standard’s website. He insists that he has not shifted ground. If he appears to keep coming up with new arguments rather than defending his old ones against attempted refutations, it is only because there are just so many, many reasons for keeping Specter as chairman.

Let’s go through some of our most important disagreements one by one.

What did Specter say last week? Specter, with the apparent support of Hewitt, claims that AP reporter Lara Jakes Jordan distorted his words. Specter didn’t “warn” the president not to nominate judges who might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. He merely predicted that such nominees would face filibusters.

This explanation will not wash. The senator said that Roe was “inviolate” in his view; that it was settled law, like Brown v. Board; that any nominee who disagreed would face a filibuster; and that he “would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations that I mentioned.” Now it is true that Specter did not actually say the exact words, “I warn the president not to nominate anyone who might be against Roe,” but his comments were not opaque. When senators want to warn presidents of their party not to do something, talking about what they “expect” or think will happen is the way they generally do it. In predicting a filibuster, Specter gave no indication that would resist it. The clear thrust of his comments was to advocate a preemptive surrender to it. That’s what the man said, not spin from Lara Jakes Jordan. Specter’s follow-up statement wasn’t a clarification of his position; it was a way of backtracking. The press-conference remarks were spontaneous, the statement calculated. Conservatives shouldn’t care about Specter’s sincerity except insofar as it suggests his future course of action. I don’t think that his follow-up statement is something conservatives can take to the bank.

Would passing over Specter amount to a “purge” of pro-choice Republicans? We should avoid overstatement here. Nobody is saying that Specter should be sent to Siberia, censured by the Senate, kicked out of the Republican party, or even removed from the Judiciary Committee. The anti-Specter forces are happy to see Specter get another committee chairmanship. They have said only that it would be unwise to put him in charge of one particular committee.

If keeping Specter from the judiciary chairmanship would be a purge, it wouldn’t be a purge of pro-choicers. Nobody is saying that Specter should be removed because he supports legal abortion and cloning. Nobody is even saying that he should be removed because he doesn’t want to let states that disagree with him on abortion ban it. Specter, however, has suggested that he might not even countenance the possibility that judges who recognize the unconstitutionality of Roe could get on the bench. Pro-lifers think that maybe someone with those views should not be running the Judiciary Committee. Other conservatives worry about placing someone with Specter’s views on originalism, tort reform, and racial preferences in that position.

Maybe it would be helpful to separate a few issues here. If Specter weren’t in line to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee, would a pro-lifer such as Hewitt be commending him for the job? That seems pretty doubtful. There are reasonable grounds for conservatives to think Specter unsuitable for the job. That leaves, I think, two further questions.

Do conservatives have a stake in a rigid application of the congressional custom of seniority? I don’t think anybody has suggested that they do until Hewitt came up with this idea in the Specter debates. (In 1995, Newt Gingrich passed over several members on the House appropriations committee to get someone he thought would be tough on spending in the chair. No conservative complained.) In the not so distant past, Republicans modified the seniority rules by imposing term limits. Now they see that the new rules are capable, on rare occasions, of making committee chairmen out of members who are not just out of step with but intolerant of their own party’s positions on the relevant issues. Why not modify the rules again? Actually, even that’s an overstatement: The rules allow for Republicans to choose someone other than Specter. Why not exercise that discretion? If there’s an argument in principle for conservatives to stick with seniority plus term limits in all cases, I haven’t seen it.

Would passing over Specter have baleful political consequences? Two such consequences have been raised. One is that Specter, and possibly other moderate Republicans, would revolt by voting against conservative judicial nominees (or not helping them to get confirmed), or even leave the party. Hewitt’s Standard piece ends with this reminder: “Jeffords. Jeffords. Jeffords.” The second is that the Republicans will look intolerant.

I don’t agree with Hewitt that Jeffords’s defection was a “disaster.” I think it worked out pretty nicely for the Republicans. I’m also not sure what the Jeffords parallel is supposed to mean. Was Bush supposed to give Jeffords the disability-funding entitlement he wanted to keep him in his camp? Wasn’t the education bill government-heavy enough? But we can leave that for another day. I will agree that losing Senator Snowe et al is worth avoiding.

So let’s consider the odds. Some of Hewitt’s allies in this matter have speculated that dumping Specter as judiciary chairman could cause six Republicans–including the fairly conservative Judd Gregg–to leave the party and give the Senate to the Democrats. That is a risk. I would place its probability at about one times ten to the negative seventeenth power. Would even one of them switch, and give up his committee chairmanships? I doubt it. That includes Specter, who would after all still be chairman of something.

I also don’t think that the moderate senators often vote out of pique at the conservatives, or do so almost ever as a bloc. Note, by the way, the psychological assumptions being made here. We are supposed to take Specter as a man of his (most recent) word, while also thinking that he is so petulant that he would reject a Supreme Court nominee on the basis of a personal slight; that Specter will hold his failure to get the chairmanship against President Bush but not give him credit for saving his Senate seat. Whether the moderate Republicans will vote against a conservative nominee is, I think, almost entirely a function of the way that nominee is portrayed in the press and the way the voters of their state regard him.

Hewitt is quite right to point out that passing over Specter would be portrayed in the press as an act of intolerance. He is also quite right to say that conservatives should not act in ways that gratuitously hand liberals their talking points. But whether this act is gratuitous is of course what is at issue. And I’m sure that Hewitt knows that liberals will have Republican intolerance among their talking points regardless. (For the press, conservatives can only “overreach” on social issues; they never just “reach,” or underreach.) As the Specter debate plays out in the press, it may marginally increase the plausibility of that talking point. Conservatives may reasonably conclude that it is still worth trying to get a better chairman–and resolve to fight any misleading spin that results. That effort would be helped if Hewitt weren’t loosely talking about “purges.”

Like most political campaigns, the one against Specter’s judiciary chairmanship has its upside and its downside potential. The downside is the risk that moderate Republicans will take retaliatory action and that Republicans will take a hit in the press. If the campaign is unsuccessful, it may yet force Specter to make concessions. It may also impress upon his colleagues that the party’s base will not allow the issue of confirming conservative judges merely to be used against Democrats at elections: It also expects the senators to deliver between elections. is not just to be used against Democrats at elections but something that the base expects them to deliver. If, as now appears unlikely, the campaign is successful, we’ll end up with a better chairman of the committee. (And really, any of the other Republicans on the committee would do.)

I’d say the balance of possibilities argues in favor of continued conservative opposition to Specter.