The Specter of Souter

Specter It was my fault. I’d been traveling abroad and didn’t want the real world invading my vacation bubble, so I was checking e-mail and world headlines superficially. Bea Arthur’s death and swine flu penetrated my consciousness to about the same depth. Sometime during those lazy days I followed a link or two and saw a stray headline reading “Arlen Specter to Leave Republican Party.” Amused, I logged off and continued blithely on with my day.

So silly of me. I’d assumed Specter—a centrist who not infrequently dissented from his party—was merely abandoning the Republicans, not defecting to the Democrats. I’d assumed he was primarily interested in taking a stand against the more outrageous elements of his cohort, and therefore would be loath to yoke himself to a different side with just as many disgraces in its ranks. I’d assumed he was breaking free to announce an allegiance to what’s been his de facto political philosophy for years, that of independents, and I’d assumed that as an independent Arlen Specter might be a real example of political valor So, so silly.

Perhaps we should be grateful for Specter’s candor—he split because his pollster gypsies spun his fortune and he knew he wouldn’t have survived a Republican primary challenge next season, when he’s up for re-election. Then again, he didn’t even try to conceal those motivations. But what crushed me and what made my jet-lag headache even worse when I returned home and read what was really happening was the lost opportunity Specter represented for independents.

Specter himself said switching parties will make little practical difference—he’ll continue to vote the same idiosyncratic way he always has. The newspaper graphics that listed the suddenly “realigned” Senate, with Specter’s “1” appearing in the tally of seats for donkeys and not elephants, means next to nothing, then, and odds are he’ll exasperate his new allies as much as he infuriated his old ones. (They’re already suspicious in fact.) There was zero news fiber in the whole affair, except for people who use politics to keep score.

If the name “Democrat” or “Republican” meant so little to Specter, why not ditch them? He could have made the same points he felt he needed to make about the GOP having lurched “far to the right since [he] joined it under Reagan’s big tent” in 1981. Leaving the party and remaining independent wouldn’t have had quite the emotional impact of joining the enemy, true, but walking away still would have done real damage to the ideologues in his old party.

To be crass, if Specter’s mostly interested in his own political prospects, refusing the Democrat label would have secured him far more power. He would have had both sides courting him; both sides would have had to come to him if he’d announced he wouldn’t pre-define himself and caucus with either side. It would also have signaled to both parties that snubbing or pummeling moderates might not be smart tactics. Instead, Specter heard the bad news about his polls, wet himself, and twelve or so hours later was holding up his jersey for a new team, flush with a huge signing bonus.

Joinordie This reversal reveals, if we needed more proof, it’s nigh impossible for most professional politicians and their hangers-on to see beyond their binary world of this-party, that-party. The only conceivable move was joining the other side. In its crudeness and stubbornness, this is the political equivalent of refusing to use the metric system. Worse, it reinforces both the self-fulfilling prejudice that third parties are not viable right now (sadly true), and also the silly and stifling notion that third parties are inherently not viable (a reactionary stance that reinforces and apologizes for power). Specter could have shaken people, got them thinking beyond Dems and Reps. Now he’ll merely get his checks signed by slightly different of donors.

To be fair, it’s not like third parties have roused and inspired people in the last few elections. Independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York (not a professional politician, mind you) pissed away a lot of credibility with his power grab for an extra-constitutional third term. Ron Paul last year revealed himself to be Specter’s goofy cousin when he refused to accept an all-but-guaranteed nomination for President on the Libertarian party’s ticket, explaining he (Paul) still felt attached to a party he’d spent much of the previous year trashing. Libertarians instead got Bob Barr, the former Georgia Republican who led the impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton and whose outstanding efforts in Congress revolved around a Constitutional ban on gay marriage. Real stickler for liberty, that one. These gaffes and failures make Specter’s decision—he had a national platform, at a crucial political moment—all the more painful for those of us convinced that expecting even minor political reform from within the current duopoly would be merely laughable if it all weren’t so heartbreaking.

The other big political news from rainy, dreary late-April was the impending retirement of Justice David Souter, an announcement made just days after Specter’s retreat. It’s a silly fiction to pretend judges are apolitical, about on the same level as believing journalists don’t have biases. But yet sometimes people surprise you with integrity. Souter was nominated by the elder George Bush as a solidly conservative jurist, and then spent most of his career voting with the liberal bloc of the court. No one has ever really explained why. Souter presumably just found the liberal arguments more persuasive and didn’t feel an undue loyalty to vote the other way because he owed anything to those who’d brought him to power.

Souter Souter quit for the enigmatic reason he had “gone sour” on Washington and its culture—an odd thing to say when the party whose interests he nominally upheld, the Democrats, had just swept into power with their most charismatic leader in decades, and suddenly had a nearly filibuster-proof lead in the Senate. Perhaps the corrupting influence of money in politics had finally bitten him too deep—but after 10,000 years of money making a mockery of politics, why suddenly announce his intentions on May Day? Perhaps Souter just wanted to wait until a Democrat was in office before leaving, to make sure someone he approved of filled his place. But maybe, just maybe, Specter had something to do with it.

Souter spends his hours away from the Court in a cabin in the back woods of New England that lacks even basic amenities like a telephone. He doesn’t use e-mail, period. And where is his retreat located specifically? In New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die” state. It’s also home of the Free State Project, the ambitious but probably doomed attempt to move 20,000 committed libertarians to New Hampshire, with the aim of forming a bloc that can influence state and local elections. This is where Souter grew up and spent most of his life, in a place that more than any other state eschews ties to traditional party politics.

I’m not claiming Souter saw Specter’s decision to jump out of one political rut and steer into another political rut and threw down his newspaper (he still reads one!) and said to himself, “That’s it, I’m done.” But from an emotional standpoint—if you’re looking for meaningful connections, at least—the simultaneous departure of Souter and Specter sure feels like more than coincidence. Except that Specter isn’t really departing, of course. He’ll likely win re-election next fall as a Democrat. If nothing else, with Souter’s spot on the Court opening this summer, Specter, probably the Senate’s leading expert on judicial matters and nominees, will be in front of a microphone a lot. Souter obviously knows this, and the cynical insouciance of the party switch couldn’t have sweetened Souter’s bile. Both Specter and Souter are Northeasterners and were Rockefeller Republicans, but when they surveyed Washington circa 2009 they had two diverse reactions to the multi-trillion-dollar government-industrial complex. One grabbed and held on, one fled. Every time Specter speaks on the news this summer, hovering behind him will be the ghost of David Souter—two political independents, both now lost, for vastly different reasons.