Arlen Specter and the Death of Pragmatic Politics

He may be the only politician ever endorsed by both Rick Santorum and Barack Obama. What was Arlen Specter's secret?

Arlen Specter was a pragmatist. That’s the kind of thing we say we want in a politician—somebody who will ignore ideology and just get stuff done—but the truth is we mostly reward ideologues. Which is why when he died Sunday at age 82, Pennsylvania’s former longtime U.S. senator was out of power and all-too-unloved in a state and city he served for a very long time.

It didn’t help that Specter’s pragmatism—though it often benefitted his Pennsylvania constituents—often seemed primarily to serve his own political ambitions. He was a Democrat, then a Republican, then at the end a Democrat again. He was a pro-choice Republican who was able to claim chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee by promising his colleagues he would ignore his own views. He’s the same guy who would savage Anita Hill, but later be very, very sorry about it.

It was frustrating, and it never seemed to be the result of an epiphany: There was no pithy Reagan-style declaration that “I didn’t leave the Democratic (or Republican) Party, it left me.”

Instead, when Specter switched back to the Democratic Party for a last, failed run for Senate in 2010, we got a frank admission that he was doing so because he’d fallen out of favor in the GOP: “I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” he said. The switch meant that he was the only politician in American politics to be endorsed, in the span of just a few years, by both Rick Santorum and Barack Obama.

That will probably never happen again.

In perhaps the most Arlen Specter-ish moment of all, he somehow found a path down the middle of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. While his colleagues lined up for or against Clinton’s guilt on impeachment charges, Specter refused to take sides. “Not proven,” he said. And as was often the case toward the end of his career, his stand satisfied nobody but Specter himself.

And yet he was elected to the Senate five times. He served several terms as Philadelphia’s district attorney before that. So how did that happen?

The easy answer is this: He was a master pork-barrel politician, and he kept Pennsylvanians larded up in federal goodies for most of his three decades in the Senate. When President Obama signed the stimulus into law in 2009, it was estimated that Specter and Sen. Bob Casey had earmarked $161 billion of it for their constituents and pet projects—almost 40 percent of the total bill. That’s astonishing.

There’s another answer, though, and it’s this: Arlen Specter grew up Jewish in rural Kansas.

I grew up in rural Kansas, too, and let me tell you about the region’s Jewish community: There isn’t one. There are Catholics and Mennonites and Lutherans and Methodists by the hundreds, a whole rainbow of caucasian Christianity. Jewishness was and is a little more exotic out there—and while I rarely encountered overt anti-Semitism during my own youth, it’s not difficult to imagine the experience might’ve shaped Specter’s efforts to become Russell High School’s “all-American boy,” a bright young man who was a quarterback, a debater, and a participant in the school play.

That isolation ultimately helped bring Specter to Philadelphia, where there were Jewish fraternities at Penn and more professional opportunities after graduation, but it probably also instilled some life lessons about how to succeed when you’re the only person in a room, or a town, who holds your particular mix of beliefs. “Be an uncompromising, rigid ideologue” probably wasn’t one of those lessons.

Today’s generation of polarized political leaders have forgotten those lessons, have forgotten entirely how to make a deal, which is one reason the United States is currently headed for a “fiscal cliff” after the election. Federal politicians want the whole loaf or none at all, and if that brings us to the edge of disaster, so be it. Say what you will about Arlen Specter, but the man knew to take a half-a-loaf—and to keep a piece tucked away for his constituents.

It’s not the way to earn the love and support of die-hard partisans, ultimately, but they’ll never be happy anyway. Arlen Specter’s pragmatism might’ve been self-serving, but it also meant he succeeded in keeping Pennsylvanians happy with his leadership for 30 years. That’s not the worst legacy to leave.