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The Runaway

Will Arlen Specter still love the Democrats tomorrow?

WHEN ARLEN SPECTER went to the White House the day after he announced he was leaving the Republican Party, the occasion had the feel of a wedding ceremony. President Obama pledged Specter his “full commitment,” and Vice President Biden, who rhapsodized about the many hours he'd spent riding Amtrak with the Pennsylvania senator, went even further. “Arlen Specter has been my friend and my confidant and my partner,” Biden said. “It’s just a delight to have no separation.” In a way, the matrimonial overtones were understandable. Specter’s joining the Democratic Party is a political marriage. But it is a marriage of convenience—and the Obama administration must be eternally mindful of that fact if it wants its union with Specter to be a happy one.

Specter, for his part, has no illusions about why he has partnered with the Democrats. “I am not prepared to have my twenty-nine-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate—not prepared to have that record decided by that jury,” he candidly explained in the press conference announcing his decision to switch parties. In other words, had Specter not faced certain defeat in next year’s primary, he would still be a member of the GOP. Indeed, at the same press conference, Specter reiterated a number of policy positions that put him in direct conflict with his new party, including opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act and to Obama’s nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

But, if Specter is a clear-eyed realist about the nature of this union, Democrats are not. Although Obama and Biden can hardly be faulted for warmly welcoming Specter into the Democratic fold, their actions leave something to be desired—namely their decision to offer Specter their full support in next year’s Democratic Senate primary. Presumably, they hope that Specter, an adaptable politician if there ever was one, will now tack left in order to win over the Pennsylvania liberals who make up a disproportionate share of the Democratic primary electorate. But, with Obama already vowing to campaign and fund-raise for him, it wouldn't be unreasonable for Specter to assume he can vote in ways that displease Democratic voters (and even the White House) on critical issues like health care since, at the end of the day, he has the ultimate political trump card: the support of Obama, whose approval rating in Pennsylvania is almost ten points higher than Specter’s.

That is why it’s essential that Specter not run unopposed in the Democratic primary. Right now, prominent Pennsylvania Democrats—most notably Governor Ed Rendell—are working to clear the field for Specter. The politician under the greatest pressure to get out of Specter’s way is Joe Sestak, a Democratic congressman from suburban Philadelphia who had been preparing to run for Specter’s seat. So far, Sestak—who spent 31 years in the Navy, ultimately rising to the rank of vice admiral, before he was elected to the House of Representatives in 2006—has indicated he won’t bow to that pressure and is one of the only elected Democrats to speak critically of Specter since his party switch. But even men who were once three-star admirals have their limit, and it’s not hard to imagine that, if the pressure continues, Sestak will buckle. So Obama needs to tell Rendell and other Pennsylvania Democrats not to interfere with prospective candidates.

It’s also crucial that, once the primary battle begins, Obama makes sure the intensity of his support for Specter’s candidacy is closely tied to the intensity of Specter’s support for Obama’s agenda. In 2004, Specter relied on George W. Bush’s fervent backing to help him win over enough conservative voters to eke out a two-point win in the GOP primary. There’s no reason Obama can’t do the same for Specter with liberal voters in the Democratic primary next year. But Specter, of course, had to swing right to secure Bush’s support. There’s no reason Obama shouldn’t make Specter swing left to secure his. It’s one thing for Obama to endorse Specter’s candidacy; it’s another thing for him to record commercials and robo-calls, hold fund-raisers, and show up at campaign events for Specter. He should only do the latter if Specter comes through for him.

Pennsylvania is not a red state in which Democratic politicians are afforded a lot of leeway by the national party so as to make themselves electable. It is a solidly Democratic state—it hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988—which means that Democrats have the right to expect a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania to vote like a Democrat. One Ben Nelson in the Democratic caucus is enough. If Obama and other Democrats allow Specter to switch his party simply to get reelected without switching his votes, then their marriage with him will be loveless—and they will be trapped in it.

 This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.