When they woke up on Tuesday morning, Pennsylvanians checking the news could’ve been forgiven if they’d been transported back 10 or 20 years. Topping the headlines? A story about how the state’s Republican senator had broken with the vast majority of his party to help Democrats achieve a victory on a major piece of social legislation.
Sounds exactly like something the late Sen. Arlen Specter would do, right?
Maybe, but Specter has been dead a year, and gone from the Senate for three. The ranks-breaking Republican? That would be Sen. Pat Toomey.
You know. The guy who drove Specter out of the GOP — and, eventually out of politics — because, er, Specter wasn’t conservative enough. Which means, yes: Pat Toomey is becoming the Arlen Specter he destroyed.
And it didn’t even take a full Senate term.
Now, let’s be generous about this. The legislation that Toomey broke ranks for? The Employer Non-Discrimination Act, which will make it illegal for employers to fire gay men and women for being gay men and women. So, yay. And the GOP wasn’t exactly monolithic about this particular issue: Toomey was one of seven Republicans to cross over and vote for cloture on the bill, allowing it to bypass a filibuster and receive a final Senate vote.
So it might not be notable, except that the vote comes months after Toomey tried to help forge compromise on gun legislation in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre. Everybody knows that Republicans — real Republicans — don’t compromise on gun legislation. The answer is “no,” always “no.” Gun-rights and other conservative groups certainly noticed.
“The biting question? Is Pat Toomey becoming the Senate’s next Arlen Specter? To which the bitter response from activists is a stunning: ‘yes,’” The American Spectator, a deeply conservative publication, wrote in April. “The specific charges revolve not just around Toomey’s out-front stance on gun control background checks, but rather that “everything” Toomey does ‘is focus grouped.’ A reference to the practice of taking political positions based not on conservative principle but polling.”
Sound familiar? Here’s Pat Toomey writing about Arlen Specter back in 2009. “What Pennsylvanians have to ask themselves now is whether Mr. Specter is, in fact, devoted to any principle other than his own re-election,” he wrote in the Washington Times. “On issue after issue, he has changed his position over the years to benefit his political calculations.”
The Toomey of 2013 — whose vote for ENDA came a decade after votes for a national Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage — might identify.
For some reason, though, Toomey has been able to weather his heresies better than Specter did. Yes, there’s been some grumbling from the base, but Toomey so far doesn’t inspire the flat-out hatred from national conservatives that Specter did for much of his career.
I asked an out-of-state conservative friend last week why he wasn’t angry about Toomey’s line-crossing. To my surprise, my friend celebrated Toomey’s political savvy.
“He's a conservative in a blue state,” my friend responded. “He's no dummy.”
I could barely stop sputtering. “So. Was. Arlen!” I responded.
“Call me when Toomey starts citing Scottish parliamentary procedure,” my friend shot back, referencing Specter’s famously weird “not proven” verdict in President Clinton’s impeachment trial.
And maybe that’s what it boils down to. Specter followed the political winds, yes, but he could also be a quirky man. Quirky is unpredictable; unpredictable is unreliable. Toomey… isn’t quirky. Sure, he might stray from conservative orthodoxies once in awhile, but it's with a clear purpose — nobody ever thinks he’s left the movement or is thumbing his nose at it. He is reliable in a way that Specter — a Jewish Kansan who was a Democrat, then a Republican, then a Democrat, and in any case famously prickly through all his iterations — never was.
For conservatives, then, Toomey has always been One Of Us. And that, paradoxically, gives him a kind of freedom to stray that Arlen Specter could only have dreamed about.