1980 was a golden year for Jewish Republicans. That November Ronald Reagan won nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote for the presidency, a modern record for the GOP and a mark that they have never come close to achieving since then.
In that same year, Arlen Specter was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate from Pennsylvania riding happily on Reagan’s coat tails. Back then Jewish Republicans trumpeted Reagan’s impressive showing as well as the victories of candidates like Specter as proof that American Jews were finally shedding their allegiance to the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other Democratic icons.
But Milton Himmelfarb’s famous quip that Jews live like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans proved to be a more lasting insight on Jewish voting patterns than much of the analysis that came out of the 1980 election. Conservatives may believe that political ideas that were based on the immigrant experience are no longer relevant to Jewish problems but the majority of Jews who interpret their religious/ethnic tradition as being synonymous with liberalism disagree.
No Republican candidate for president has ever come close to equaling Reagan’s vote that year including Reagan himself. In the last two presidential elections the pro-Israel stands of both George W. Bush and John McCain were not enough to trump other factors – including an unreasonable fear of conservative Christians as well as party-line loyalty to the Democrats – that proved decisive in determining the Jewish vote. In the eyes of liberal Democrats and some discontented Republicans such as author David Frum, the fact that social conservatives, such as 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, seemed to have effectively won control of the Republicans gives substance to the belief that moderates have no place in the contemporary GOP.
But Specter’s departure from the Republican Party has far more to do with his personal political dilemma than it does with the future of the GOP.
Though he is hardly the only American politician of whom it can be said that he is in business for himself, Specter has always been a political party of one whose only platform plank is the advancement of the senior senator from the Keystone State.
Specter was, after all, a Democrat in the 1960’s when he first switched parties, not over any ideological differences with his party, but because his path to higher office was blocked. He remained in the party, not out of any loyalty to Republican liberalism such as that exemplified by Jacob Javits (a liberal Republican who represented New York in the Senate from 1956 to 1980) but out of convenience.
Once elected to the Senate, Specter’s only consistent trait as a legislator was a hunger for massive amounts of legislative pork that he brought home to Pennsylvania, solidifying his personal power.
On foreign policy, he was no defense hawk in the sense that domestic liberals such as the late Henry "Scoop" Jackson or Joseph Lieberman were. On this, as on all other issues, he was a free-lancer rather than a true independent. Thus, while still counting himself as a backer of the Jewish State, he became Syrian dictator Hafez Assad’s favorite U.S. Senator, frequently traveling to Damascus over the years.
Though he was pro-choice on abortion in a party in which the majority remained pro-life, it is a myth that this played a prominent role in hostility to Specter from the right. After all, two-term Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge was also a pro-choice Republican but remains a popular figure in his party. Instead it was Specter’s dazzling inconsistency, disloyalty and relentless self-promotion that grated most on GOP sensibilities. It was no wonder that his foes in both parties found him a frustrating opponent. As, Joseph Hoeffel, his Democratic opponent in the 2004 election, said of Specter: "It’s hard to run against Arlen on the issues because he’s on both sides of every one."
In 2004, Specter faced a stiff primary challenge from Pat Toomey, a hard-core conservative congressman. Yet he still received the enthusiastic backing of President Bush and his Senate colleague Rick Santorum, both of whom were closer to Toomey on the issues than Specter. Hours after he won that race by a whisker, he held a press conference in which he emphatically turned his back on Bush.
Despite this, five years later, it appeared as if the 79-year-old Specter would still have an easy path to re-election in 2010 for a sixth term. Toomey had already announced that he would not challenge Specter again. But in January, Specter voted for President Obama’s stimulus bill, enraging conservatives and motivating Toomey to change his plans and switch from a race for the Pennsylvania statehouse to a Senate run. Given the fact that neither Bush nor Santorum would be willing or able to bail him out this time, it was obvious that Specter was heading to defeat. Determined to save his seat at all costs, he jumped to the Democrats claiming that the Republicans had forced him out.
But the demise of liberal Republicanism happened decades ago, not this past winter.
Nelson Rockefeller-style GOP liberals disappeared a generation earlier as both of the two major parties became less ideologically diverse. If Arlen Specter was comfortable as a Republican running with right-wingers such as Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, it is difficult if not impossible to argue that his switch had much to do with any distaste on his part for cultural conservatives or Republican intolerance for independent minds.
Rather it was the noxious personality of Specter and his indefatigable egotism that eventually earned him so many enemies in his home state party that nothing, not even the need to preserve a 40th senate seat for the Republicans, could ameliorate the open hostility that he provoked.
Though in the age of Obama the Republican tent is currently far smaller than it used to be, there is plenty of room in it for fiscal conservatives and foreign policy hawks who don’t share the socially conservative views of Palin and others. Had Specter carved out a niche for himself on either of those topics, his views on abortion would never have brought him to the point where he had to jump from the GOP before he was pushed.
Jews remain incorrigibly liberal and more loyal to the Democrats than every sector of the population except African-Americans. The ascendancy of social conservatives in the Republican Party has ensured that this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future even if this puts the Jews in the position of rejecting their closest allies on the question of security for the State of Israel.
But this has little to do with Specter’s apostasy. It may be that Jewish Republicans feel the senator’s defection puts a period on their hopes for a greater share of the Jewish vote.
But that is a more of a statement about their bad judgment in hitching their star to his shaky wagon than the supposed intolerance of a conservative-dominated party that desires purity over diversity. The strange journey of Arlen Specter from Democrat to Republican and back again to the Democrats is a story of one man’s unbridled ambition and political expediency, not the tale of a party held hostage by the right.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine.