Proxy War

by Noam Scheiber | May 10, 2004

Last May, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter trekked to Manhattan to make his pitch before a monthly gathering of conservatives known as the "Monday Meeting." Specter, who even then was concerned about the looming primary threat from right-wing Pennsylvania Representative Pat Toomey, touted his record of supporting tax cuts and the death penalty--even his vote to put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. But several of the Monday Meeting faithful, a collection of economic conservatives known for opening their wallets to Republicans, remained skeptical. If he was so conservative, the attendees demanded, why had he opposed Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court--back in 1987? That a controversial vote cast nearly 20 years ago could help almost topple a sitting senator may seem a little harsh. But it was the story of Specter's narrow primary victory this week. Toomey's conservative backers repeatedly reminded voters that Specter spent the '80s and '90s defying his party, on everything from tort reform to abortion rights to judicial nominations. "He's been a thorn in the side of conservatives since the early '80s; it's been festering for two decades," complained Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, the conservative organization that directed more than $2 million to Toomey's campaign. "A tiger can't change his stripes." But the irony is that Specter had done exactly that. Last year, Specter scored an impressive 85 on an index put out by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). And, over the last three years, Specter has been a reliable vote for the White House agenda, backing conservative judicial nominees, supporting a series of massive tax cuts, and even voting to ban partial-birth abortion (despite being pro-choice). Which means, now that Specter has narrowly survived the Toomey challenge, conservatives may have to focus on who's really making them mad: George W. Bush. When pressed, just about the only real Bush-era betrayal conservatives can cite is Specter's vote, along with moderate Republican Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island and then-moderate Republican James Jeffords from Vermont, to scale back the 2001 Bush tax cut by several hundred billion dollars. "If we hadn't had those three dissidents, we would have had a bigger tax cut," says Moore. But, even here, Specter's liberal backsliding is dubious: Rather than actually cut the size of their tax cut, the Bushies responded by using accounting gimmicks--namely, a series of phase-ins and phase-outs--to pack a $1.6 trillion bill into a $1.35 trillion wrapper, which Specter eventually supported. Moore grudgingly concedes this point before adding that a conservative like Toomey would have pushed to include additional provisions, such as a cut in the capital gains tax. "The central black-and-white difference between Toomey and Specter is that Toomey was saying, we've got to make it much bigger." Maybe. But, beyond Specter, there were 52 other votes to make the tax cut smaller; had it been larger than its original $1.6 trillion price tag, there would surely have been more. Besides, this was only the first of multiple Bush tax cuts. Specter also voted for Bush's $43 billion package of investment tax breaks in 2002 and his $350 billion package of dividend- and marginal-income tax cuts in 2003. The further you get from the tax issue, the more hazy conservatives get. The Club for Growth recently ran an ad accusing Specter of caving to the trial lawyers on tort reform, and Pennsylvania conservatives were particularly exercised by what they saw as his lack of backbone on medical malpractice. But, as Robert Novak reported last summer, Specter has essentially followed the administration's lead on these issues, a performance that won him the endorsement of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, a physicians' group determined to cap jury awards in malpractice cases. According to Chuck Moran, the group's spokesman, Specter assured the group he'd support certain caps and that he'd vote for cloture if the Democrats tried to filibuster a bill. "He carries water for organized labor and trial lawyers. But it's not on votes. It's on hearings, etcetera," concedes ATR President Grover Norquist. How about judges? Conservatives clearly have a point when it comes to Reagan- era judicial nominees like Bork and Alabama Judge (now Senator) Jeff Sessions. But, when it comes to the current administration's crop of high-profile nominees--Priscilla Owen, Charles Pickering, William Pryor, Miguel Estrada-- Specter has been as dependable a vote as any in the Republican caucus. "Since President Bush came to office, he's been a solid presence defending the president's nominees and voting them out of committee," says Sean Rushton of the conservative Committee for Justice. And this point is doubly important: While conservatives grouse about Specter's pro-choice position on abortion, it's primarily the judicial realm where the major abortion battles are fought. Other than the tax cut, just about the only concrete issue conservatives can point to in the W. era is a single, mangy vote Specter cast against a school- voucher demonstration project in Washington, D.C., last year. It was a program, National Review has reminded readers, that even Dianne Feinstein--a Democrat, a Californian, and a girl (the trifecta of conservative demonology)--found it within her bleeding liberal heart to support. But, while the teachers' unions may have influenced Specter's position, it's hard to imagine he would have dared come down the same way had the president made vouchers a top priority. "On votes that really matter, votes that go down to the wire, he always pulls through," says an aide to a conservative Republican senator. Instead, the White House chose to make its big education push on testing and standards, shunting the voucher issue into the legislative shadows, where Specter could quietly appease a swing constituency. That said, the education issue does raise a valuable point: It may not be Arlen Specter conservatives have a problem with, so much as George W. Bush. In fact, at times, you get the impression that the campaign against Specter was really just a proxy for conservative disaffection with the president. When I asked Moore about education, he complained that Specter "wanted to put two hundred billion dollars into education. We don't want to put any federal money in that." But, of course, federal money for education was an early hallmark of the Bush agenda. Likewise for Medicare reform. Toomey was one of a group of House conservatives who outspokenly opposed last fall's $400 billion bill, a piece of legislation the White House pushed for extremely hard and that Specter gladly supported. It's an issue Toomey had talked about on the campaign trail and that continues to rankle conservatives. But it's an issue where conservatives are angry at Specter not for spurning Bush, but for being too loyal. As this example suggests, the proper way to distinguish between Specter and Toomey isn't liberal versus conservative; it's pragmatic conservative versus suicidal conservative. Specter has made a habit in recent years of voting in favor of the conservative agenda, while still casting the less consequential votes he needs to cover himself politically. Toomey, on the other hand, has insisted that ideological purity trump all other considerations. In addition to voting against the Bush Medicare bill because it was too bloated, Toomey has voted against scores of appropriation bills he deemed excessively pork-laden-- even those that benefit Pennsylvania. Even more foolishly (or admirably, depending on your perspective), he made Specter's ability to shower Pennsylvania with federal largesse an issue in the campaign. Fortunately for Specter, at least some conservatives saw his brand of conservatism for what it is. Indeed, by the time Specter finished making his case to the Monday Meeting in New York last May, more than a few in attendance were persuaded that he deserved reelection. "We don't necessarily agree on some things, but he's not really a liberal," says one New York conservative who attended the meeting. "He's not Jim Jeffords, not Lincoln Chafee, not Olympia Snowe. It's not where he is." That more conservatives won't acknowledge this fact is a sign of how extreme the contemporary Republican Party has become.

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