Requiem for principled votes.

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s 30th year in the Senate may be his last. His support of President Obama’s economic stimulus package has placed him in jeopardy in the 2010 Republican primary in which he trails a much more conservative candidate in early polls. Ironically, his vote against the offensive, pro-union “card check” bill infuriated powerful labor interests, and thus weakened his argument that only he can hold back a strong Democratic challenge to his seat next year.

Specter’s centrist views and willingness to vote his conscience have given him unusual influence and power as a “swing” vote. They also have made him a target for extraordinary criticism from the right wing that dominates the Republican Party.

If his senatorial career comes to an end next year, Specter will leave behind a record that comes a lot closer to being a noble one than the records of most senators who have served as long. Specter, on occasion, has taken positions that demonstrate courage and honor. The few bright moments in the careers of most senators occur purely by chance, when their studied pursuit of self-interest and partisan ideologies coincide to produce something resembling sound public policy. Partisan votes are the norm; principled votes are rare.

Many politicians complain about political partisanship; few do anything other than perpetuate it. Hand wringing over the extent to which raw partisanship has crippled Washington’s capacity to solve problems has never been greater, and both candidates in last year’s presidential election vowed to rise above it. Instead, President Obama frequently has wilted under pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, neither of whom has a non-partisan bone in his or her body.

For their part, Republicans respond to almost every step that President Obama takes on domestic policy with the mantra that he is turning the United States into a socialist country. David Gergen laments that every issue seems to send both sides to the barricades. The only things as scarce as cooperation are thoughtfulness and reflection.

The moral to a Specter defeat in the Republican primary will be that, despite all rhetoric to the contrary, non-partisanship remains an unproductive strategy in a primary election. His loss would be a signal that Congress is becoming more partisan, not less.

April 22, 2009

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