Philadelphia Metropolis


Arlen Specter's Last Campaign

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Arlen Specter was lucky it rained all day on primary Election Day. Otherwise, he would have lost to Joe Sestak by 10 or 12 points, instead of the official eight-point spread. But it did rain and turnout was miserable and so was Specter at the end of the night.

He must have known this was coming, but he still had a stunned look on his face when he conceded - a mixture of surprise and deep sadness.

Maybe he believed he would pull it out at the last minute, as he had done so many times before.  It was not to be.  After 45 years of either serving in or running for public office, Specter was forced into retirement by the voters at age 80.

No one wanted to bet against Specter, but it became obvious in the final two weeks of the campaign that the electorate was turning.  The only thing I can say about Sestak is that he was a mediocre campaigner with smart media advisers, Neil Oxman and Doc Sweitzer's crew at the Campaign Group.

They did "The Ad," as it has come to be called, the TV commercial that showed Specter linked arm and arm with George Bush, Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin, and a clip of him making the declaration that he switched parties so he get could be re-elected. 

It wasn't so much a negative ad as a 30-second morality play, with Arlen acting the role of a craven opportunist who did what he did mostly to save his own skin. In other words, it was an accurate portrayal. And it was devastating.

The electorate was somnolent most of the campaign season, but this commercial, which ran in the final weeks, certainly woke them up. Bush, Santorum, Palin are bete noire's of liberal Democrats and liberal Democrats are the most active primary voters.  Arlen lost on two counts: first for embracing Bush et al., then for running away from his own party. It was an impossible position to be in. He ended up getting blamed for his loyalty and his disloyalty. 

Specter concession.jpgThe analysts said that if Arlen had handled his party switch better - wrapping it in the robe of principle instead of as a survival technique, voters wouldn't have judged him so harshly. I doubt it. Voters are not that easy to fool.

Arlen had already established a reputation of tacking to the left or the right, depending upon campaign season. In reality, he was a centrist, but it was sometimes hard to tell how much of that was philosophical and how much was pure politics.

But, regardless of the season and regardless of the race, it was always all about Arlen. 

Maybe the egomania was a defense mechanism. How else could a Jewish kid from Kansas go on to get elected in a state that didn't particularly like outsiders or Jews? You either had to be more likeable than anyone else or more relentless. Arlen didn't do likeable, but he was relentless.

He ran and lost for District Attorney, the U.S. Senate and governor in the 1970's until he finally won his U.S. Senate seat in 1980, due mostly to the fact that his Democratic opponent was former Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty, flat out one of the worst campaigners in Pennsylvania history. (Next to Pete, Sestak looks like FDR.)

Specter is also incredibly bright, a Wichita boy who went on to graduate from Penn and Yale Law School. Someone who worked with him during his years as Philadelphia district attorney likened Specter to the law professor John Houseman played so brilliantly in the movie "The Paper Chase." The imperious Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. -- cold, demanding but sharp.

Only at the end of his career - after he had fought off cancer and heart disease - did he elicit some sympathy.  Unfortunately, he also elicited doubts about his ability to serve another six years.

 This year, Arlen ran the best campaign of the primary season. He eviscerated Sestak at their one and only televised debate. He had sharp, well-focused ads and, as usual, he ran around the state like a madman doing retail campaigning.

But, once voters focused on the switch of parties, all the king's horses and all the king's men could not put him back together again. Not even President Obama.

Voters had taken a measure of the man and their judgment was harsh. Arlen Specter had run one too many campaigns.


Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis


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