Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Thought About Arlen Specter

Representative democracy is a system that generates public decisions from voter preferences. Each voter’s preferences are a function not only his interests as he perceives them, but of his political ideals and his perception of his civic obligations. A voter’s ideals and interests usually point him in roughly the same direction. Since doing well need not be inconsistent with doing good, it’s not unreasonable for all of us to hope that we can do both at the same time. And we’ re all susceptible to wishful thinking that makes that hope the cause of our belief that political positions that serve our interest also happen to serve our ideals and satisfy our obligations. So when it comes to explaining why a candidate won or lost an election, it’s always going to be hard to separate the interest-based from the ideal-based factors.

Sometimes a candidate makes that a little easier by being unusually unresponsive to civic ideals. Arlen Specter is a case in point. He started political life as a Democrat, switched to the Republican Party because it provided him an immediate path to public office, rode his Republican affiliation all the way to the Senate and then defected regularly from the Republican party line once he got there. Specter liked to portray his lack of party loyalty as an expression of high-minded statesmanship, a matter of his putting the country’s well-being above his party’s. Up to a point, it was still possible to associate him with conviction politicians, like Joe Lieberman or Russ Feingold, who vote with their party most of the time, but defect on important issues, like the Iraq war or the Patriot Act, when they think their party's heading off-track.

But Specter’s statesmanship was revealed as a hollow pretense when he moved conspicuously to the right on his signature issues when it looked like he might lose the Republican senatorial nomination in 2004, and finally switched parties and changed his positions on the day’s biggest issues (e.g., the public option, card check) when that looked like a sure thing the next time he faced the voters. For the last couple of months he spent running against Joe Sestak for the Democratic senatorial nomination, Specter was reduced to arguing that the seniority Harry Reid was allowing him to keep was the best argument for his reelection to the Senate because it would enable him to keep more pork flowing to Pennsylvania. All of Specter’s twists and turns made it hard to believe that his lack of party loyalty was an expression of any settled conception of the common good. He’d succeeded in convincing people across the political spectrum that he lacks the dignity of a party hack.

Were representative politics merely a matter of serving voter interests, you could argue that Specter is a model politician, precisely because no national politician over the last thirty years has had his finger extended so resolutely into the wind. It’s arguable that, if all politicians were as good as Specter at turning themselves into human hedonometers, our political system would be more efficient at satisfying voter interests, and therefore promoting the collective welfare. Some such notion is behind the traditional belief that there’s a certain dignity to politicians like a John Murtha or Ben Nelson who think that bringing home the bacon is the biggest part of their job.

Specter’s ignominy is a measure of the increasing importance of ideals in our electoral politics (along with the fact that Ben Nelson's approval ratings among Nesbraskans dropped precipitously after he withdrew his "principled" objections to ObamaCare in exchange for getting Nebraska a lucrative Medicaid funding exemption).  More people seem to be using their votes to tell politicians not merely what they want, but what they believe.  If you ask me, that's a good thing.

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