One who, motivated by self-interest, takes advantage of opportunities or circumstances with little or no regard for underlying principles or consequences is an "opportunist."  Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, pictured on the right, is an opportunist.  He may, I think, be properly regarded as the paragon of opportunism.

Specter was a registered Democrat when he ran as a Republican for district attorney of Philadelphia in 1965. After winning the race, he then cast his fortunes with the Republican party, and went on to become a United States senator.  But now that it appears he cannot retain his seat in the United States Senate as a Republican, he has again become a Democrat.  It seems like yesterday that he was scrambling about Washington trying to convince Bush the Younger and various GOP leaders that he was the best representative of that party to serve as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  As the political winds change so do the party affiliations of some of our "stalwart statesmen" in D.C.  Right?

It is not that changing political parties is always the wrong way to go.  Ronald Reagan, after all, was once a Democrat who voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, not long ago switched from being a Democrat to an Independent. Abraham Lincoln was a Whig before he became a Republican.  The Whigs were dead in the water at that point, but I guess that Honest Abe could have sought a little more fervently than he did to revive the party.  These examples suggest that it is not unthinkable for an honorable man to change his party affiliation.

Yet there are examples of changing one's party which have rung terribly hollow and have borne an infelicitous harvest.  John Connally, former governor of Texas and close personal friend of Lyndon B. Johnson, left the Democrats to become a Republican candidate for President.  That prompted Ralph Yarborough, a man whose perception and intelligence were often underestimated, to quip that it was the first time he ever heard of "a rat swimming toward a sinking ship."  Voters agreed, at least about the rat part.  Connally spent millions and won only a single primary delegate.  John Lindsay, the debonair mayor of New York City, hoped to have a career on the national political stage, and so he divorced the Republicans to marry the Democrats.  He, like Connally, never made it to first base.  Both men were widely regarded by the populace as opportunists, which they were.

Don't misunderstand me:  one can certainly be a political opportunist and never change parties.  We have seen that over and over again.  Washington is replete with such people. There is nonetheless something signal about the act of changing parties that always begs for scrutiny and, more often than not, receives it from the electorate, even if subliminally.  This is all the more true when the party one leaves is on its knees gasping for a breath of air.  Mark my words:  Arlen Specter will be viewed by Pennsylvania voters in 2010 as an opportunist.  His changing parties is all about himself and being re-elected, and voters will not miss this fact.

I confess that I have never much liked Mr. Specter.  He speaks with great authority on matters of which he is ignorant.  I was turned off with him when he was an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission and expounded the "single bullet theory."  I wondered then how he could be so sure of a theory that, whether true or false, was shot through with holes and seemed at best incredibly fragile.

But what perhaps irked me the most about Mr. Specter was his dim-witted questioning of Robert Bork in connection with the latter's confirmation hearing for Supreme Court justice.  He accused Bork of holding that the Court was not authorized to address issues of pornography under the First Amendment.  Nothing, of course, was further from the truth.  Bork believed that local communities could enact laws against pornography, and that the Court could review those laws.  He had never once asserted that the Court was not authorized to consider whether what a community understood as pornographic is actually such. The position that Mr. Specter attributed to Bork would, incredibly enough, destroy the possibility of judicial review!  The question that I walked away asking myself was whether Mr. Specter's tactic amounted to mere demagoguery or whether, in spite of his legal education at Yale, he never possessed the candlepower to understand that the distinguished jurist before him was not apt anytime soon to overthrow Marbury v. Madison and the tradition of judicial review in connection with the law of obscenity.

Never mind all of that.  Mr. Specter declares that he wants to remain in the Senate because his work there is not yet done.  I beg to differ.  One does not have to be from Pennsylvania to hope that the voters from the Keystone State will give him a speedy and long retirement.

May 3, 2009