Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Longtime GOP Senate moderate Arlen Specter bucked his party

A political moderate, Arlen Specter was swept into the Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980. But the former Democrat was not shy about bucking fellow Republicans.

By Peter JacksonAssociated Press / October 14, 2012

In this 2010 photo, Sen. Arlen Specter speaks at the Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia as he campaigns across Pennsylvania for the nomination to run for re-election.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Enlarge

HARRISBURG, Pa.

Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, the outspoken Pennsylvania centrist whose switch from Republican to Democrat ended a 30-year career in which he played a pivotal role in several Supreme Court nominations, died at his home in Philadelphia Sunday. 

Skip to next paragraph

Specter rose to prominence in the 1960s as an aggressive Philadelphia prosecutor and as an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, developing the single-bullet theory that posited just one bullet struck both President Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally – an assumption critical to the argument that presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. The theory remains controversial and was the focus of Oliver Stone's 1991 movie "JFK."

In 1987, Specter helped thwart the Supreme Court nomination of former federal appeals Judge Robert H. Bork – earning him conservative enemies who still bitterly refer to such rejections as being "borked."

But four years later, Specter was criticized by liberals for his tough questioning of Anita Hill at Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination hearings and for accusing her of committing "flat-out perjury." The nationally televised interrogation incensed women's groups and nearly cost him his seat in 1992.

Specter was Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator when Democrats picked then-U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak over him in the 2010 primary, despite Specter's endorsements by President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders. Sestak lost Specter's seat to conservative Republican Rep. Pat Toomey by 2 percentage points.

A political moderate, Specter was swept into the Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980.

He took credit for helping to defeat President Clinton's national health care plan – the complexities of which he highlighted in a gigantic chart that hung on his office wall for years afterward – and helped lead the investigation into Gulf War syndrome. Following the Iran-Contra scandal, he pushed legislation that created the inspectors general of the CIA.

As a senior member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Specter pushed for increased funding for stem-cell research, breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and supported several labor-backed initiatives in a GOP-led Congress. He also doggedly sought federal funds for local projects in his home state.

The former Democrat was not shy about bucking fellow Republicans.

In 1995, he launched a presidential bid, denouncing religious conservatives as the "fringe" that plays too large a role in setting the party's agenda. Specter, who was Jewish, bowed out before the first primary because of lackluster fundraising.

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer