May 13 (Bloomberg) -- What sitting U.S. senator has been the recipient of hearty praise in ads cut by a Republican president and a Democratic one?
No more calls: we have a winner. It’s Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, fighting to win that state’s Democratic primary on May 18.
Supporting Specter in his last re-election bid, in 2004, then-President George W. Bush proclaimed, “I can count on this man,” their hands raised in a campaign clasp.
Fast forward to 2010. President Barack Obama, who opened his arms wide to welcome Specter’s switch to the Democratic Party last April, says in an ad for Specter: “You know he’s going to fight for you” and “I love you and I love Arlen Specter.”
Love? The adjectives more closely associated with Snarlin’ Arlen are pugnacious, determined, courageous (two bouts of cancer), honest -- even expert, particularly in Scottish law, which he curiously cited in voting “not proven” during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
When Specter sold his soul to the Democrats to escape a brutal Republican primary rematch against the Club for Growth-backed Pat Toomey, he said with a frankness rarely seen in Washington, “My change in party will allow me to be re-elected.”
Clear the Field
It looked that way for months. The White House happily paid up for that 60th vote in the Senate. Vice President Joe Biden, who rode the rails for years with Specter as they commuted home to Wilmington and Philadelphia, respectively, got Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s promise to try to clear the Democratic field in 2010 so that Specter wouldn’t be distracted or diminished by a primary. Sure, he would face his nemesis Toomey again in the general election, but as a Democrat in a state with an excess of them.
But Specter’s backroom deal with Democrats on his way out of the GOP makes him look like an incumbent of two parties in a year when it’s better to be an incumbent of none. Whether Democrat or Republican, those in office reek of entitlement, fat-cat fund raisers and a preference for Wall Street over Main Street.
Incumbency fever is becoming epidemic. Democratic Senators Harry Reid of Nevada, Barbara Boxer of California and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas are all struggling. Florida Governor Charlie Crist is now running for Senate as an independent after seeing his Republican Party all but abandon him. Republican Senator Bob Bennett, in office since 1993, lost his party’s nomination.
Republican Senator John McCain, who says he never deserved that maverick label he once reveled in, has undergone a political and psychic makeover to get to the right of his Arizona primary challenger. In his latest break with his political identity, the man who once said “we’re not going to erect barriers and fences” put up an inartful ad this week with the tag line, “Complete the danged fence.”
Danged? Surely the last person to use the word was somebody’s great-grandfather, perhaps in the days when proud Arizona mavericks drank sarsaparilla and stood tall.
Aside from being a double incumbent, a few other funny things happened on Specter’s way back to the Senate forum. The danged establishment just isn’t what it used to be; nor are the once-smoke-filled back rooms.
Two-term Democratic Representative Joe Sestak got the memo from party elders about waiting his turn -- and may or may not have gotten an offer for a big job in the Obama administration - - but he refused to go away. A former commander of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier battle group in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sestak is more used to giving orders than taking them from party operatives. So he jumped in against Specter.
Sestak trailed badly in the polls until last week. As the outsider, he is living on roots and berries, with no organizational or fundraising help from his party, a pest everyone thought Specter would easily exterminate.
After looking good in the only debate last Saturday, Sestak choreographed a brilliant ad in which he juxtaposed the Bush and Obama endorsements, with a Sarah Palin cameo thrown in, to highlight Specter’s flexible view of political bedfellows.
Then, as a gift from heaven, came Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Sestak seized on Specter’s vote against Kagan for U.S. solicitor general last year, just weeks before he became a Democrat, a strange vote on the strange grounds that she had failed to answer Specter’s questions about “her standards for handling that job.”
As a bonus for Sestak, the nomination triggers for female voters of a certain age the specter of Specter’s vicious questioning of Anita Hill at the Clarence Thomas hearings.
On His Own
The Specter camp is begging Obama to pay a campaign visit on this last weekend before the primary, which is unlikely. Another Biden visit was likely until his son, Beau, suffered a stroke. Specter may be on his own.
That seems appropriate. His party switch, just to run again, raises the question of whether he ever thought of leaving the Senate gracefully and gratefully after three decades in the Capitol.
At 80, having looked the Grim Reaper in the eye twice, an outcast to his former party and interloper in the other, surrounded by party apparatchiks but still alone, he found himself last weekend at a Jefferson-Jackson Dinner thanking the Allegheny County “Republicans” -- a gaffe he committed twice - - for inviting him.
Is winning enough if you no longer know who you are?
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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