When Arlen Specter announced he was quitting the Republican Party to become a Democrat, who knew he would be joining the Joe Lieberman wing of the Democratic Party?
Well, that is apparently what he’s done. While the Pennsylvania senator’s decision late last month to switch parties brought great joy to the ranks of congressional Democrats, some of his actions since then have made a lot of Democrats wonder where his loyalties really lie.
Lieberman is a faux Democrat who lost his party’s nomination in Connecticut’s 2006 Democratic primary. He ran in the general election as an independent and won a third term in the Senate. Lieberman, who remains a registered Democrat and continues to caucus with Senate Democrats, calls himself an “independent-Democrat.”
Last year, Lieberman campaigned for Republican John McCain — and against Democrat Barack Obama — during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“Sen. Barack Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But my friends, eloquence is no substitute for a record, not in these tough times for America,” Lieberman said during a campaign speech.
Specter was officially welcomed to the Democratic Party’s ranks by President Obama, who promised to support the senator’s 2010 re-election campaign.
It was the prospect of being challenged in the Republican primary by a staunch conservative that pushed Specter, a political moderate, to switch parties.
So how did he respond to Obama’s welcoming embrace? Four days later, Specter tried to put some distance between himself and his new party during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat,” he said sternly to David Gregory, the show’s host. “I did not say that.”
And as if to punctuate those words, Specter quickly began to behave like a disloyal Democrat. He voted against a Democratic budget resolution and helped defeat a White House-backed bill that would permit bankruptcy judges to alter the terms of a homeowner’s mortgage.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Specter told The New York Times that Minnesota’s Supreme Court should “declare Norm Coleman the winner” of the state’s still unresolved 2008 Senate race.
The outcome is expected to be decided this summer by Minnesota’s high court. After a statewide recount, Democrat Al Franken emerged with a 312-vote lead over Republican Coleman, who is appealing that decision.
If the court affirms Franken as the winner, Democrats will have the 60 votes they need to stop Republicans from using filibusters to block legislation. So why would Specter — a newly minted Democrat — want Coleman to prevail?
“In the swirl of moving from one (party) to another, I have to get used to my new teammates,” Specter said.
His retreat came amid a howl of protests from Democratic Party operatives and reports that he had been taken to the woodshed by Obama aides.
What’s certain is that Specter will have to decide very soon if he wants to run for re-election as a loyal Democrat, or as a Lieberman Democrat. Having just shed his Republican cloak, it may be tempting for him to stake out a position of independence within the Democratic Party — but it wouldn’t be wise.
Given the choice between a real Democrat and one who joined the party just to keep his re-election hopes alive, Pennsylvania’s Democrats may bring Specter’s tenure as a Senate Democrat to a screeching halt.
DeWayne Wickham is a Maryland-based columnist who writes for USA TODAY. E-mail: DeWayneWickham@aol.com.