Will this man's decision haunt the Democratic Party?

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter rocked the political world on April 28 when he bolted the Republican Party and became a Democrat. Assuming Al Franken soon assumes the seat he fairly won, the Democrats will have a filibuster-proof majority in Congress. This is good news for Obama supporters, but liberals may wish to hold a pot-luck cookout rather than a champagne supper. Arlen Specter will make, at best, an odd duck Democrat. He’s an improvement over the execrable Joe Lieberman as a party ally—as would be Benedict Arnold—but welcoming Arlen Specter also means finding room for his baggage.

Specter has been such an opportunist that his true principles are as elusive as Bigfoot. He began his political life as a Kennedy Democrat and worked on the Warren Commission Report. Specter was one of the primary authors of the report’s controversial “single bullet” conclusion. Shortly thereafter, the ambitious Specter became a Republican. At the time, Pennsylvania politics were heavily under the sway of the moderate “Rockefeller wing” of the GOP.

That didn’t work out too well but Specter rode the Reagan tidal wave to the U.S. Senate in 1980. Like a chameleon he reemerged as a Reagan revolutionary with all its concomitant free market and culture wars rhetoric. How much of the latter he believed is an open question. He helped sandbag Robert Bork’s 1987 nomination for the Supreme Court and subsequently appeared to be a strong supporter of abortion rights. But in 1991, Specter not only supported Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, he badgered Anita Hill in tones that bordered on the very sexual harassment of which Thomas was accused. Yet in 1998, he defied the GOP again and spoke out against attempts to impeach President Clinton. So which guy is the Real McCoy?

Specter’s most-recent conversion seems to have grown out of disgust for Bush-style Republicanism. Specter didn’t care for the Patriot Act, the actions of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, or military tribunals. He also lost his stomach for culture war issues and his lack of zeal almost led his own party to strip him of his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee.

There’s little reason to doubt Specter’s announcement that he found himself “at odds with the Republican philosophy,” but a brilliant April 29 Dan Wasserman cartoon sums up why that statement is less than the sum of its parts. It shows a suited Specter dashing from a table of GOP Neanderthals dining on human bones. As Specter flees he remarks, “It’s been a lovely tea party, but I have to run.” The word “run” is a clever double entendre. Specter probably would not have survived the GOP primary and the state is now tracking heavily Democratic. (Obama won the state by 10%.) A Democratic Specter is his best chance of keeping his seat, but it’s probably also the GOP’s best chance of regaining that seat in 2010.

It’s hard to look at Arlen Specter’s record without thinking of Tom Paxton’s poignant satirical song “They All Sound the Same.” It has a very appropriate lyric that goes, “I’ll be out there leading, two or three steps behind you.”