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Political Animal

Sestak for America!

By Brian Morton | Posted 5/6/2009

So, in the course of one week, Sen. Arlen Specter bolts the Republican Party and David Souter lets it be known that he's retiring from the Supreme Court at the end of the current term. And what does this mean to a good, forward-thinking progressive?

Joe Sestak for the Senate in 2010!

You don't get it? It's a matter of the falling dominoes. Arlen Specter switched over to the Democratic Party for the most clear-cut and obvious reason: If he stayed a Republican, he wouldn't keep his job. The only principle involved was the paycheck (well, and the perks and the power, but let's keep this simple). Some are calling him "an unprincipled hack," and there's plenty of evidence for that--that he sold out his conscience to George Bush before his last election, which gave him the edge he needed to beat slavering right-winger Pat Toomey by two points in his primary. Specter is responsible for the provision snuck into the PATRIOT Act that allowed Bush to appoint U.S. attorneys without subjecting them to the advice and consent of the Senate (of course, Specter blames that on a staffer who did it without his knowledge), and Specter was the one who bore down on Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, in the end accusing her of "perjury."

But Specter wouldn't be Specter if he didn't also tick off his own side as well. The senior senator from Pennsylvania was the one who helped torpedo Robert Bork in the'80s (which some saw as the start to the take-no-prisoners political wars that the GOP has waged ever since) and the final straw was his vote for President Obama's budget back in February, which provided the impetus for Toomey to launch his second primary campaign.

Philadelphia blogger Duncan Black, aka Atrios, quotes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as saying to a group of bloggers, "Arlen Specter's with us except when we need him." So the only way to get him on your side is to make it worthwhile. Thus, it's time for retired admiral Joe Sestak to run against Specter from the left in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary next year.

Now, let's look at the Souter retirement.

We already know that the conservatives in the Senate will find a way to up their game; they've done it at every stage since Bill Clinton was elected. When a Democrat has held the White House, they've held up federal judicial nominees for years (such as Sonia Sotomayor, who has already been named as someone who might be on Obama's short list), they've gone the impeachment route, and now they've decided to make everything--not just appointees--that goes through the Senate subject to a 60-vote supermajority.

When a Republican has the White House, they've demanded "up-or-down votes," they've ignored standard Senate traditions such as "holds," the home-state senators' prerogative for U.S. District courts, and they have even threatened to use "the nuclear option"--changing the very rules of the Senate--in order that their president gets his choices. The end goal of all of these games was to ensure the highest percentage of doctrinaire conservatives end up on the bench. Elections matter for years, but court decisions can stand for decades.

So the rules of the game change depending on whether it's an "R" or a "D" running the country. When Obama names his choice, you can be fairly sure that the GOP will find some new way to step up the game, although the fact that the Democrats tentatively have 60 votes will make it much harder to have an effect.

Obama's problem will be holding the caucus together if he tries to name anyone even a hair more than left-of-center. The Republicans will shriek as if he named a close relative of Hugo Chavez, and the right-wing noise machine will amp it up even louder (although after calling the president a Muslim, a socialist, and a terrorist in the last year alone, it's going to be hard to see if they can top that).

So the president will need people like Arlen Specter to actually behave like a Democrat, and there's where Sestak comes in.

If Sestak starts making it clear that Specter will have a challenge from his left flank, the wavering senator, who has made it clear that he cares the most about Number One, will be more likely to stay in line. He's already irked his state's powerful unions due to the flip-flopping he did on the Employee Free Choice Act (before he finally came down against it in his final attempts to appease the hard right), and a vote against Obama's Supreme Court choice would cinch what could be a hard-fought primary--which is exactly what he switched parties to avoid.

If Sestak runs and loses, Specter gets a scare and may straighten up and fly left, so to speak. If Sestak wins, the Senate gets a better Democrat who can be counted on when you need him, instead of someone who has gotten used to admiring the view from the Hart Senate Office Building.

Sestak in 2010! Because it'll make Republican heads explode, and maybe even make Arlen Specter a better senator.

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Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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