The Corner

The View From The Left: Republicans, Governing

Thomas Oliphant’s read of the Specter matter:


Why the Specter flap matters

By Thomas Oliphant, Globe Columnist | November 9, 2004


MY FIRST reaction to news of l’Affaire Specter was bemusement — a classic example of post-election, multisided bloviation.


Upon reflection and a little reporting, I’ve decided that the assault from the right on the Pennsylvania Republican senator just elected to a fifth term is in fact serious, revealing, and possibly an early indicator of the latest attempt by conservatives — after a generation of false starts — to actually govern the country. The knee-jerk thing would be to come to Arlen Specter’s defense while he is under assault by forces normally characterized by people of my bent as primarily loony.

Bad idea. For one thing, Specter is not worth defending; at best he is relentlessly quirky, at worst opportunistic. For another, in this formative, postelection period, it is more useful to understand the forces that instantly became so furious at him last week.

The flap directly involves an ancient goal of conservative politics — reshaping the federal judiciary. Orrin Hatch of Utah is about to cease being chairman of the Judiciary Committee — through whose portals all judicial nominees must pass — because of one of the lingering inanities of the brief Newt Gingrich era: term limits. By seniority, Specter is next.

Specter faced a primary opponent to his right ideologically and then a moderately demanding general election. With the votes behind him, he opined that future judicial nominees by President Bush who clearly do not favor abortion rights as embodied in Roe v. Wade are likely not to be confirmed. That is not exactly what he said, but I am positive that is all he meant. He made no threat or promise involving his own behavior. It is clear, however, that in classic Specter fashion, he was declaring himself a player.

On the right, Specter’s comment was taken as a threat. The ensuing furor produced a flurry of “clarifications” by Specter, all designed to assure conservatives that as chairman he would do nothing to retard the confirmation process of any Bush nominee. None of those statements has quieted the furor.

The Bush White House –which could stop the whole thing quickly and decisively if it wished to — has decided to let Specter twist a bit longer. This is in part punishment and in part to see just how deep the furor’s roots are. The same attitude has been taken by the Senate Republican leadership (notably the majority leader, Bill Frist, and his second-in-command, Mitch McConnell), who could also have stopped all this quickly.

With Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s health in doubt, the sense of urgency is only increased. That’s why l’Affaire Specter is important. Actually achieving results will take old-fashioned party discipline. Whether to try to impose it is the issue here, and a lot of Republicans much more important than Specter are involved. Conservatives have won elections; some of them now want to actually change things in this country.


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