Column: Specter no friend of the left or right, not even himself

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 22, 2004

BOSTON &045; Does this mean that I have to rise to the defense of Arlen Specter? If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, is the target of my enemy my hero? Do I have to rally whole paragraphs around the senior senator from Pennsylvania?


In the aftermath of the election, the Ayatollah wing of the Republican Party has insisted that their opposition to issues like same-sex marriage and abortion put the president back in office. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

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Now it’s payback time and the folks who already own the White House and Congress are itching for the last piece of property on the Monopoly board: the Supreme Court. The real fight won’t come until and unless ailing Chief Justice Rehnquist resigns his post. But the wrangling over the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is a pretty good warm-up.

Just days after Specter won a bruising re-election campaign in a state that the president lost, he was asked about court appointments. Specter offered his opinion that any candidate overtly ready to overturn Roe v. Wade wouldn’t make it through the Senate. This rather ordinary analysis was interpreted as a threat to winning over the Supremes.

In short order, James Dobson, the patriarch of Focus on the Family, called him a &uot;big-time problem&uot; and said he must be &uot;derailed.&uot;

Conservative petitions were launched with the stern warning: &uot;Do not allow this chameleon of a charlatan to become chairman.&uot;

Next, a less-than-supportive Senate leader, Bill Frist, called Specter’s comments &uot;disheartening.&uot; And on Tuesday, conservative Christian groups held a pray-in outside the Senate office building.

So, if pro-lifers are praying for his ouster, does that mean he’s a pro-choice savior? Not exactly.

&uot;Arlen Specter is pro-choice the way Louisiana is French,&uot; says Elizabeth Cavendish of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which gave him a 21 on its 100-point scorecard. In her view, his lingering pro-choice label has become little more than a tourist attraction.

If the right wing bitterly remembers when Specter opposed Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987, the left remembers when he defended Clarence Thomas in 1991. In leading the charge against Anita Hill, the prosecutorial Specter said her testimony was &uot;flat-out perjury.&uot; It was a phrase that launched a million buttons reading: &uot;I Believe Anita.&uot;

Since then, as Cavendish says, he’s been for family planning and stem cell research and against the impossibly misnomered partial-birth abortion.

He’s opposed to overturning Roe but apparently not opposed to confirming justices who would do it.

In his campaign for re-election, Specter said, &uot;The forces of moderation really need me in the Judiciary Committee in the chairman’s position.&uot; But consider the defense he’s mustered over the past week as he hustled from one camera to another.

He’s busily reassured the folks who want a litmus test for committee chairs that he won’t have a litmus test for judges. At stop after stop he’s not only bragged that he risked his Senate seat for Clarence Thomas &045; profile in courage &045; he’s defended himself by boasting how he’s supported all the Bush pro-life nominees to lower courts.

In a particularly craven op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Specter reminded people of Pat Robertson’s endorsement: &uot;I think he’ll be fine.&uot;

And, just for the resume, he listed 17 statements he’d made against the Democratic filibuster of such nominees as Charles Pickering, a man the president had to sneak onto the bench during a congressional recess.

Specter’s reputation as a moderate is a bit like Colin Powell’s. Why, if Powell hadn’t been secretary of state during the first term, who knows what would have happened? We might have gone into Iraq on false premises.

The whole debacle says less about Specter’s moderation than the party’s rightward plunge … or purge. Specter is a flaming leftie compared to the newest Republicans on the block like Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma senator-elect who said that doctors who perform abortions deserve the death penalty. (Why stop at doctors, how about women?)

And he’s moderate compared to the next in line for the chairmanship, Arizona’s Jon Kyl. That may make him the lesser of you-know-whats, but it doesn’t make him my new best friend.

President Bush defended Specter in the Pennsylvania primary, saying he is &uot;a little bit independent-minded sometimes&uot; but &uot;a firm ally when it matters most.&uot; I fear that’s exactly right.

Now Pat Mahoney, head of the Christian Defense Coalition, announces, &uot;We are in a full court press&uot; to see that Specter doesn’t get the chair.

We all know what court he’s pressing. &uot;However,&uot; adds Mahoney, &uot;if we can’t succeed, we can neuter him.&uot;

Not to worry. Arlen Specter is doing that all by himself.

(Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is