Arlen Specter Shows How Far Right the Modern-Day GOP Has Gone

The political arc of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s career in many ways reflects the political arc of our own country. Specter, who died over the weekend, considered himself a centrist left behind by the Republican party. His legacy, and our current political climate, suggests that’s mostly true.

Specter began his career as a lawyer and first rose to recognition as part of the Warren Commission where he took credit for originating the “single bullet” theory that a lone gunman shot and killed both President John F. Kennedy and Gov. John B. Connally of Texas. In the Senate, Specter was a respected member of the Judiciary Committee who famously voted against the nomination of Robert Bork, spoke out critically of the “sham trial” of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and in his 1995 Presidential run, denounced the Christian right as an “extremist fringe” that was dangerous to the Republican Party. Specter was a full-throated supporter of Roe v. Wade and a champion of biomedical and embryonic stem cell research even before he was diagnosed with cancer.

Those are all impressive moderate credentials, especially given the current positioning of the Republican party. And, had Specter managed to stay as consistently moderate in the Clarence Thomas nominations, then his legacy as a true centrist would be unquestionable.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, Specter vigorously supported Thomas’ nomination and aggressively and in some instances unprofessionally questioned law professor Anita F. Hill about the sexual harassment complaint Hill had filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Thomas when the two worked together at the Department of Education.

Specter’s performance during the Thomas hearings went a long way to reinforce the public perception that Hill’s claims, and by proxy all sexual harassment claims, should be treated first with derision and suspicion. Her treatment helped reinforce the notion that women who file such claims clearly do so for strategic purposes and not because they have been genuinely harmed. With his treatment of Hill, Specter stained his otherwise commendable legacy on women’s rights.

Specter’s legacy will likely overlook the Thomas hearings, in part because the Christian conservatives Specter warned his party about are in charge, which means yes, Specter is a centrist by comparison. Even his treatment of Hill would be considered centrist compared to the kinds of questioning she could expect from today’s Tea Party Senators. Remember when he told Rep. Michele Bachmann to “act like a lady?” Seems downright normal in today’s misogynistic Republican party. And when we place that in the context of our national political climate, it’s easy to see just how far to the right this country has slid.

Related Stories:

Was Specter Out Of Line Telling Bachmann to “Act Like A Lady”?

Specter May Vote Romney, Depends Which Romney Shows Up

Specter Defects-Obama Gains

Photo from aflcio via flickr.


Joe M.
Joe Martinez5 years ago

Aelen Specter like him or not, was a true legislator that was not afraid to buck the party when he did not agress with radical Religious idology in the political system. He believed Religion and government were not to be mixed, set on his believes that caused him to part from the Republican party. And look it today, Specter was right and I phrase him for standing for his convictions. He was great for Pennsylvania and we'll miss him.

Jane H.
Jane H5 years ago

he was not liberal enough for me, BUT, he was pro-choice and pro-gay, and I loved this about him. I was glad when he joined the Dems.

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin5 years ago

No hero of mine!

natalie n.
natalie n5 years ago

how far has the nation actually progressed? or is it regressive?

John B.
John B5 years ago

Thanks Jessica for the article. I disagreed with Specter on some issues and was absolutely outraged by his treatment of Anita Hill but he was a politician, what more can be said. Maybe in the end his epitaph should read "He died as a man without a party".

janice b.
jan b5 years ago

If you read about the John Birchers, the KKK and the describes the kind of people who make up the republican party today. The good ol-republicans left the party and some were the base and I know a few of them. Charlie Crist of Florida is another one who left the republican party....and it takes courage because the party-members are not kind.

Diana Bair
Diana Bair5 years ago

There may be more republicians turn democrat, I would not count on it, but is possible!!!!!!. The AYN RAND PHONY NEW BREED SO CALLED REPUBLICIAN PARTY, May drive out some of the OLDER ONES. Voters need to go back in history and compare these phony republicians with the REAL republicians, they may be surprised at how far off these are!!!!!.

Lee Witton
5 years ago

Arlen Spechter epitomized the career politician whose first and foremost goal was to ensure his ow re-electability. He did not always tow the GOP line but he did become a Democrat in 2010 after his own party abandoned him in a re-election run as a Republican. It was of course, politically expedient to do so. His vilification of Anita Hill was was atrocious and this woman has lived her life knowing that Clarence Thomas, a man who sexually harassed her is now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. So typical was Spechter's behavior as a member of the Republican party, but so apparent why he would choose the Democratic party rather than losing a political seat, and worthy of being considered betrayal of his own worthless party on the right of the aisle. The fact that Spechter is now dead does not change facts although we would far rather remember those gone before us for their great contributions rather than standing for the despicable deeds of others who depended on Spechter.

Rob Keenan
Rob Keenan5 years ago

Aside from the Anita Hill accusations and whether or not they were true,Paula M.,it's my opinion as a Progressive that Thomas is the worst Supreme Court Justice of my lifetime,just sitting there silently ,following Scalia's lead.All the same ,Specter was in my view a Moderate and we need some of them in office on both sides of the isle.I'm always amused at non progressives such as yourself who presume to think for us who are progressive because it shows the extent to which you have no clue about us.

Arlen Specter will be sorely missed.

Nils Lunde
PlsNoMessage se5 years ago