Specter's challenge

Arlen Specter, the five-term senator from Pennsylvania and recently minted Democrat, is one of the great survivors of U.S. politics, and he may extend his lease on public office next year when he seeks reelection. But he shouldn't expect to win the nomination of his new party by default. Thanks to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), he won't.

Sestak, a retired vice admiral, announced Tuesday that he will challenge Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary. In taking on Specter, Sestak is placing himself athwart President Obama and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (who warned Sestak that he would "get killed" in the primary if he challenged the incumbent). He also is risking condemnation if a contentious primary makes it harder for the victor to defeat the likely Republican nominee, former Rep. Pat Toomey, in the general election.

But if a free pass for Specter would have benefited the Democratic strategy to retain control of the Senate, it would have been a disservice to democracy. A senator who virtually defines the term "entrenched incumbent" shouldn't be able to so easily evade the judgment of his new party.

In abandoning the party he had embraced for decades, Specter acknowledged that that he was motivated less by political philosophy than by the fear that he was losing ground to Toomey among Pennsylvania Republicans. "I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," Specter said when he announced his conversion. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, he had decided that he didn't care to belong to a club that had him as a member for four decades.

Specter is one of most fascinating members of Congress: erudite and effective, but also expedient. He alienated conservative Republicans when he opposed the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork but redeemed himself in their eyes with his interrogation of Anita Hill, who had accused another nominee, Clarence Thomas, of improper advances. He burnished his pro-choice credentials by suggesting that the Senate wouldn't approve a Supreme Court nominee opposed to Roe vs. Wade; then, when angry conservatives tried to deny him the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, he assured them that he could vote for an antiabortion nominee. He proposed an amendment giving Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their confinement in court, then voted for a final bill that denied them that right. And so on.

Democrats, many of whom have supported Specter in general elections, may find his candor about his conversion refreshing. Or maybe not. Still, they shouldn't allow Obama's understandable desire to hold on to a Senate majority or Rendell's long friendship with the incumbent to preempt their decision. This isn't the usual situation in which party leaders endorse an incumbent officeholder in a primary. Most incumbents seeking renomination have received the approval of their party at least once. Without a challenge, Specter would have entered next year's general election as the "choice" of a party that was never given an alternative.

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