Arlen Specter Is Old but Not Dumb

Apr 29, 09 | 8:14 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Arlen Specter has defected from the Republican Party not because it’s too conservative, but because he is too old. When you’re 79 and running for another six-year term, the big issue isn’t politics, it’s age. Specter’s Republican primary opponent, former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, may be a lot more conservative than Specter, but, as attractively, he’s a lot younger, too.

Nobody’s going to cast an uncritical vote for a 79-year-old if there’s a sentient alternative.

Except, of course, the Democratic president of the United States, who will get a filibuster-proof majority if he does. The president has promised to hand the doddering Specter the Democratic Senate nomination in Pennsylvania, guaranteeing him victory in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, in return for the old coot standing with the Democrats.

You don’t get more nakedly opportunistic than this.

(AP Photo)

It’s a civics class reminder: The strength of political parties is not based on ideology, but on the fact that they get you elected. Specter is merely part of such an unsentimental understanding and trend. Mark Parkinson went from Republican to Democrat, and, by so doing, became the lieutenant governor of Kansas, and, with the confirmation of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as health and human services secretary yesterday, governor himself. In New York, Michael Bloomberg went from Democrat to Republican to Independent to, currently, trying to accrue all labels in his bid for a third term. In 2001, the Democrats briefly achieved a Senate majority with the defection of Jim Jeffords.

Switching used to be frowned upon. Because each party stood for very little, it had a vested interest in defending the idea that it stood for a lot. Therefore both parties discouraged crossovers. Nobody wanted a turncoat. But with the Republicans becoming a real party of believers, and the Democrats become a party of the opposite view, a realignment becomes natural—and disguises the fact that it is, most clearly, not ideology at work but expediency and opportunism that gets a politician to switch sides.

Curiously, it seems not to have occurred to the Republicans that if they tried to get rid of the over-the-hill Specter, he might have another option. This lack of foresight was probably an aspect of the age factor. After almost a century as a Republican, how do you become a Democrat?

Easy, it turns out. You do what you have to do to save your aging skin.

If Specter had been defeated in the GOP primary by an arch conservative, the Democrat, whomever it was, would surely win in November; if Specter had won the primary, he would have, as a 79-year-old Republican, vulnerable on age and party, likely lost to the Democrat. Therefore, Specter could solve all his problems, including, it seems, mortality itself, by becoming that Democrat.

This is why politicians like politics, because sometimes it’s magic.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at

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