Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


The Unbearable Lightness of Being Arlen Specter

Ross Douthat makes some sensible arguments in yesterday's NYTimes about why the exit of Arlen Specter from the Republican stage is not especially lamentable. Yes, we'll sometimes miss his vote. But his vote was hardly a reliable one and, I'm sure, the Dems will find him an equally unreliable ally. The trouble with Specter is not that he is less conservative than one would have liked or more liberal than one might have preferred . . . it is that he is less principled than anyone ought to be. Douthat says this very well:
Political debates are often framed in binaries: Middle-of-the-roaders versus hard-liners, moderates versus ideologues. But American politics is more complicated than that. There are multiple rights and lefts, and multiple middles as well. So-called extremists can serve the country well. And self-conscious moderates can be intellectually bankrupt.
The problem with Specter then, is not even that he is just a kind of sleazy opportunist. Sometimes (e.g., NOW) it's fair to say that he is walking that line. But this latest exploit, unbecoming as it is, does not begin adequately to define him. Bill Clinton was this kind of politician, and Arlen Specter is no Bill Clinton. If you wanted to say that Clinton was unprincipled, you wouldn't have been crazy . . . but you would have been slightly off. Clinton's principle was (is?) himself. There was no honor in that, of course, but at least it was something that one could understand. And, in any event, there was a certain amount of American hucksterism in it that elicited a chuckle and a bit of awe at the real and not imaginary audacity of it. It was no good thing . . . but it was certainly a thing.

Arlen Specter, by contrast, is utterly uninteresting. There is no understanding Arlen Specter. He is a moving target . . . moving sometimes according to his own political and personal interests, other times according to his fancy, and occasionally in accordance with some transient thought now stuck in his dull intellectual teeth. What do you do with that? How do you speak to it? Reason with it? Make deals with it? You don't. You can't. You might as well have a monkey throwing darts at a board and count his throws as votes as count on Arlen Specter's vote. And now the Democrats have all the pleasure.

Jonah Goldberg also has some thoughts on Specter and the Republicans. He concludes, brutally, by noting: "Arlen Specter, even if he spends 40 more years in government, will be remembered for nothing at all." To which I'd say, except for this. But he will be remembered for this only because the Democrats and the media are so ardently allowing their wish to become their thought about what this is going to be and about what it means about the GOP. But it is going to amount to but a "specter" of their hopes. This is Specter's high water mark . . . the pinnacle of his power and influence. He will stand there, gaze down upon what he has wrought and not have the slightest beginnings of a coherent clue of what to do about it.

I fully understand that the future of the GOP will and must include the influence of people who are less "conservative" than me. It will and must include the influence of people who are more "conservative" than me. It will and must include (if only because we can do nothing to rid the human condition of such people) hucksters whose only principle is themselves. But I really hope we can manage to ignore the influence of people whose only ambition is to climb the mountain and then, when they do it, just stand there and look down with a stupid and confused countenance. Let them all be Democrats.

Categories > Politics

Discussions - 20 Comments

Sometimes it's hard to remember, but the first job of a Senator is to represent his or her state (or in this case, commonwealth). Arlen Specter has been a good senator for the Commonwealth, and his constituents have rewarded him by reelecting him. Who knows if he'll win again in 2010, but the reality is that the political makeup of the Commonwealth has changed, and he is prudently responding to those shifts, just as he did 40 odd years ago when he changed his party registration to Republican.

I tremble for Pennsylvania if Arlen Specter represents ""The Cool and Deliberate Sense of the[ir] Community"--but there it is from Billy Penn himself. He said it, I didn't. Of course, California's got Boxer . . . and you all in Ohio have Senator Brown. Don't such observations ever make people wonder whether there wasn't something very sensible in the original Constitutional design for selecting senators?

When Reagan changed parties, was he a sleazy opportunist or simply utterly uninteresting? How did you speak to that, or reason with it? To be consistent from your moral high ground of principle, it would include describing anyone who switched to republicanism to be equally unbearable in their lightness.

When Reagan changed parties, was he a sleazy opportunist or simply utterly uninteresting? How did you speak to that, or reason with it? To be consistent from your moral high ground of principle, it would include describing anyone who switched to republicanism to be equally unbearable in their lightness.

Mr. Reagan changed parties in 1962. He was at that time an actor employed predominantly in television, not an elected official nor an extraparliamentary politician. He had been the President of the Screen Actors' Guild on and off (about a half-dozen year's worth) over the period running from 1946 to 1961, but it is doubtful that a Republican registration would have been helpful in reacquiring that position had he wished to do so.

The sources and dynamics of the changes in Mr. Reagan's political opinions have been the subject of puzzlement and speculation over the years due to the absence of any discernable personal crisis over it; the influence of his wife is often referenced.

Accusing a man who is not a working politician of political opportunism is non sequitur. That aside, one of the criticisms oft-heard about Mr. Reagan when he was in office (from David Stockman and Jack Beatty to name two) concerned his adherence to certain precepts without regard to empirical reality. Such are not the mental habits of the Vicar of Bray


Reagan changes parties because he believed that the Democrats had become unapologetic Commies, especially the ones in Hollywood... Again the Gipper was right...

Really good article by Douthat about how worthless the current crop of Republican "moderates" are. The only quibble I have is his contention that Republicans should follow the 1980s "neoliberal" model. I don't mind the neoliberals. They moved Democratic policy in a more free market oriented direction and I like that, but for the analogy to really work, the new crop of reform conservatives would have to move the Republicans in a more statist direction. I'm not so sure about that. What if the answer is in finding creative ways to make the Republicans even less statist on the economy? What if the main problem of existing conservatism is less ideological than sociological?

Let them be politicians, A senator by any other party name would.......

They moved Democratic policy in a more free market oriented direction and I like that, but for the analogy to really work, the new crop of reform conservatives would have to move the Republicans in a more statist direction. I'm not so sure about that.

I think the distinguishing feature of the 'Atari Democrats' of the era (politicians like Timothy Wirth and journalists like Charles Peters) was their indifference to certain, Democratic constituency groups, their skepticism of a politics whose salient feature was the aggregation of constituency groups, and their advancement of certain novel modes of policy-implementation (e.g. discouraging industrial pollution via excise taxes rather than regulatory controls). They were also skeptical of certain novelties which were then prominent in the thinking of the Democratic Party establishment.

The thing is, it is hard to think of a precise analogue (within the Republican constituency) to the United Auto Workers or the National Education Association; the Republican Party seems more an alignment of a portfolio of cultural dissidents than economic sectors. Neither has the Republican establishment embraced some sort of libertarian nostrum as riddled with practical problems as national economic planning or national wage determination (called 'industrial policy' and 'comparable worth' back in the day). Mr. Douthat' analogy is not that good.

With Reagan, principle moved him from the Dems to the Republicans. With Specter, the principles keep him in a kind of non-committal hot-coal dance in the center. Sometimes he falls on one side of the fire, other times he falls on the other. It never seems that he is sure of which way he prefers to fall and it almost appears as if he has no control of the falling. Here's hoping, this time, that he falls right into the pit and feels the burn.

ren may be surprised to know it, but one of the charms I keep about my person at all times is a little miniature donkey taken from my great-grandmother's Democratic Party name-tag for some function to which she was very proud to have gone. Because there were almost no important principles about which she and I would have disagreed, I keep it as a reminder that principle (and a great many other things) are always more important than party. And if she were alive today, I think very likely that she would have carried an elephant around in her purse. But never mind . . . I don't care if you're a Republican, ren . . . but a conversion to "republican" would be most desirable.

Art Deco, elgibility limits on welfare (though in a somewhat differnt form than the one in the 1996 Welfare Reform bill) also came out of the neoliberal moment and were associated with David Ellwood, who later became a Clinton adminstration official. There were actually lots of... I don't know what you would call them other than unorthodox liberals in the 1980s. The atari Democrats were one example, the neoliberals at the Washington Monthly were another and so was the DLC. These groups were all different in some ways, but I think (from earlier reading of his blog) that Douthat had all of these groups in mind in his analogy. I agree that his analogy has real problems.

The "first job" of any official or service-member is to defend the Constitution.

Arlen left the Democrats in the 60's for the same reason he is rejoining them today--the numbers. He is chasing the 200,000 Penn. Republican voters who registered as Democrats in the last election--although some of them may have been Rush's Operation Chaos voters.

But chasing voters is the opposite of leadership.

I am not familiar with the content of academic and professional journals of the period, but I can say what was being put forth in opinion magazines as well as periodicals which translate the content of academic journals (The Public Interest foremost among them).

FWIW, a critique of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the like was not a signature of the circle around Charles Peters. Ken Auletta and R.M. Kaus took an interest in these issues, and both might have been described as dissident liberals, though neither was a protege of Peters. Auletta's views were based on his own reporting (on the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation). R.M. Kaus' views were based on his experience as a cog in domestic policy staff of Jimmy Carter's White House. Kaus' adhered to the views of Lawrence Mead of New York University. I am not aware that Dr. Mead had any association with the Democratic Leadership Council, et al. His work was disseminated in The Public Interest.

Dr. Ellwood's later work notwithstanding, his views circa 1986 were fairly conventional for a specialist in the study of social work. Kaus was quite dismissive of them. I am not sure there was much in the critique of the welfare system provided by folk such as Dr. Ellwood that was not derivative.


Sometimes it seems as if the time and effort of Republican legislators at all levels is directed to being able to slap the phrase 'I voted to cut your taxes' on a campaign pamphlet. Meanwhile, the autonomy and accountability of state and local government is badly compromised by filaments of funding from superordinate layers of government, the tax code is a hopelessly rococo industrial pseudo-policy-cum-constituency-group-fellatio, New York (among other loci) and all of its components are wholly-owned subsidiaries of public employee unions, state universities have been turned into sandboxes for their faculties, and the appellate judiciary does whatever it damn well pleases. Good work, boys.

Would JFK, {or EVEN RFK for that matter!} be a member of the post-1968 Democrat party. Would they even be able to identify it? As for RR, he simply stood still, while the Democrat party slipped further and further to the Left. And after 1968, that party has become what it has, a party that even drove Joe Lieberman out, after driving out Shelby, Gramm, et al.

As for Specter, what does he represent? Boredom, which then became habit, and then sloth. BUT LOW, Specter's time may be up.

Art Deco, Ellwood wasn't a conservative and his prescription for a highly subsidized transition to the workforce was very different from what a conservative would have wanted but also a departure from what the liberal dead-end defenders of the status quo wanted. Ellwood wasn't directly associated with the DLC, but some of his rhetoric (I am not sure how sincere about the policy) was picked up by Bill Clinton who was. Not defending Douthat's analogy, but I think that is the kind of alliance between unorthodox thinkers and creative politicians that Douthat had in mind.

The specific policy prescriptions David Ellwood favored may have been original in certain respects. The critique of the welfare system implicit in them was derivative. (And there were several proposals on the table for modified systems ca. 1986).

If one has a mind, one could run through the campaign literature of Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis during that period, DLC position papers, and back issues of The Washington Monthly. I will wager you will find little about the welfare system not carrying a by-line of 'Robert M. Kaus' or 'Mickey Kaus'. Just not their issue.

Dan, Ronald Reagan was, circa 1948, a votary of Franklin Roosevelt who had no objections to a social democratic political economy. He was also an antagonist of Communist influence in the trade unions, most specifically the Screen Actors Guild over which he had specific responsibilities. That was not unusual at the time. The 'popular front' wing of the Democratic Party as typified by Henry Wallace, et al was a minority taste; figures such as Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, and Arthur Goldberg (among many others) did good work in emasculating them in the immediate post-war period

Reagan's adherence to the Republican Party and the Goldwater campaign a decade and a half later reflected a different understanding of what the country's political economy ought to be. He was only able to implement small fragments of that understanding, but he was quite emphatic that the ultimate goal was the reconstruction of institutions as they had stood in 1928. The phrase "he simply stood still, while the Democrat party slipped further and further to the Left" is a description of the political life of Henry Jackson or Norman Podhoretz, not Ronald Reagan, except on certain social and cultural questions. As for the Kennedy claque, with the exception of Sargent Shriver, they have been slaves to fashion.

I am thankful for the posts of Art Deco.

I also think Pete is right in 6.

In any case I don't think we have become so light in the head that such a compromise as makes up China's fiscal policy wouldn't go down in flames.

Art Deco, I think we are talking past each other. Kaus was a neoliberal (he still sort of describes himself that way on his site) who was in favor of work requirements. Ellwoods idea of eligiblity limits was picked up by by Clinton aide Bruce Reed (a DLC type)and who is reputed to have written Clinton's "end welfare as we know it" line. It wasn't that any of these folks were really original, it was that they were center-left thinkers who challenged the liberal orthodoxy on the welfare issue. I think it is encouraging that kind of unorthodox thinking among conservatives (while not becoming mere oppurtunists like Specter) that Douthat was encouraging. But the analogy has real problems of course.

It is possible that the work of those unorthodox liberals had something to do with the split among congressional Democrats on welfare reform. Or it could have been the AFDC system's low popularity. I think there is merit in both explanations but I think more merit in the second one.

But lets not give them to much credit - though Kaus was plenty honorable and brave. The heavy lifting on welfare reform, both in analyzing the system, and popularizing the critique of the system and passing the welfare reform bill was done by center-right thinkers (Mead, Gilder, Murray) and politicians.

And a question that I'm curious about (since you do seem to have studied the disputes on this issue): Do you prefer, as a matter of policy, the kinds of welfare reform favored by Mean or those favored by Charles Murray?

OK, so much for Specter. What about Powell?

Do you prefer, as a matter of policy, the kinds of welfare reform favored by Mean or those favored by Charles Murray?

Neither. I am no one of consequence, and am missing certain granular knowledge, but if anyone is interested...

What is properly done when depends on current conditions. Right now, the condition of the macroeconomy is very uncertain. I have a suspicion that the rate of unemployment consistent with price stability may, after the financial crisis plays out, be stuck north of ten percent for a good many years.

Were the situation in the labor market what it was during the period running from 1985 to 2001, I would suggest that doles of indefinite duration be limited to the elderly and those adjudicated as disabled, with the provision of institutional care (through one mode or another) for a selection of those in this population (asylums, nursing homes, 'assisted living', supervised apartment buildings, 'group homes', &c.). Unemployment compensation and 'survivors benefits' would be (as they are now) term-limited and conditional (and provided by federal rather than state authorities). Receipt of Social Security would require (as it does now) that you or someone of whom you were a proximate dependant have made contributions over a period of years.

The state would also undertake to make common provision (through vouchers, insurance, or public agency) of goods which provide a conduit to entering and remaining in the labor force (primary and secondary schooling, mass transit) and of goods whose provision is hampered by severe information imperfections and for which a common sense of justice is antagonistic to purely commercial provision (medical and nursing care).


Local authorities would also revise planning and zoning regulations to promote a wider range of choice in the realm of housing: more small and cheap digs for low-level tertiary sector workers.


Local authorities would in addition undertake to improve the quality of public spaces and public goods. Much good had been done along these lines in the last twenty years and more could be done: chuck the hoodlums in jail, sandblast the graffiti off the walls, raze the derilict buildings, replace property taxes with municipal income taxes to excise incentives to abandon property, build pedestrian infrastructure, which includes removing barriers to small-scale street-level commerce; keep the parks well-lit, well landscaped, orderly, and clean, &c.

Reconstitute the tax code at all levels in an equalitarian direction. Make use of consumption taxes only to induce 'substitution effects' in accordance with public policy. You might have Pigou levies to discourage industrial pollution or taxes on liquor to discourage intemperance or a general consumption tax to encourage savings. Get rid of the payroll taxes and the property taxes and the nuisance taxes. Get rid of the deductions and exemptions. Have a flat-rate levy on corporate profits, have a flat-rate levy on legacies received over a certain lifetime deductible, and have income tax liability calculated as a flat-rate levy less a sum of credits derived from the number (and type) of dependants you have. For households with low-incomes, the credits will exceed the levy and the household will thus receive a subvention from the state. However, the net subvention would be capped at a particular percentage of their earned income, a cap that could be relaxed for those over the statutory retirement age or those who had been adjudicated as disabled.

You might supplement the foregoing with vouchers for compensatory education programs and a federal employment service like the Works Progress Administration

All of the foregoing is directed at helping people get to work and subsidizing their wages and helping them to enjoy street life on equal terms with others. Except for a modest population of the addled and the crippled (perhaps 2% of the total), it makes no use of the apparatus of the therapeutic state.

Propagandizing people to live a better life and caring for small incorrigible populations ('the homeless') would be the business of private philanthropies.

Not one thing you see above is an original idea. It's Ben Wattenberg's preferred tax plan, Daniel Hinshaw's preferred principles of urban planning, James Q. Wilson's broken windows policing, &c. The debt to Charles Murray is the excision of doles for able-bodied and working-age people (bar temporary unemployment compensation). The debt to my old microeconomics professor is the replacement of subsidies to private goods like food and fuel and housing with straightforward income redistribution.

Steve, he is an Obama supporter whose speech called for the GOP to move to the left on taxes and spending to go along with his social liberalism. Powell did not offer any alternative policies (though his remarks could plausibly be read as an endorsement of Obama's stimulus and tax increases), with which to disagree and his pointless shot at Palin is hardly the kind of thing someone who is truly against polarization would do. Powell is a more impressive guy than Specter, but until he comes up with a more specific agenda that differentiates him from both the Democrats and from conservative Republicans, I don't see how he is a real alternative or how Republicans can really benefit from trying to please him.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL: