Arlen Specter's 'Centrist' Presidential Campaign

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Republican presidential candidate, met last week with Monitor editors to discuss his campaign. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

I'M a fiscal-economic conservative and a social libertarian. I agree with the three principles that former Sen. Barry Goldwater articulated when he said we ought to get the government off our backs, out of our pocketbooks, and out of our bedrooms. I'm the only pro-choice candidate running for the Republican nomination. But more importantly ... I'm the only centrist in the field.

I'm unhappy with the way that things are being run at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue right now.... Congress needs to concentrate on the core values of smaller government, less spending, lower taxes, as opposed to a broad social agenda. There's nothing in the Contract With America about any of the divisive social issues. And I'm very concerned about the direction that the party is heading.... Under the dominance of [the Rev. Pat] Robertson, [Ralph] Reed, and [Patrick] Buchanan, we have a group which is fundamentally trying to change the way we live in America..... And they are fringe ... about a 4 percent factor: very loud, very vociferous.... And I think they pose a real threat to not only the soul of the party, but to the soul of the country.

Do you believe you're making progress in New Hampshire?

Well, I think we are making progress, but in this marathon run, it's hard to measure and hard to quantify yet, because I think most people have not yet begun to really look at the campaign. One of the recent CNN-Time polls had everybody in single digits except for Sen. [Bob] Dole, who was [at] 35 [percent]. I was at 5, which might not seem like a whole lot, but when you start from zero in a national race, that's some improvement.

Many in New Hampshire oppose Goals 2000 [national education standards]. Are you able to convince them that there's something valuable there?

New Hampshire has a lot of pro-Goals 2000 people. The [state] House of Representatives voted for it. It was a narrow [defeat] in the state senate. Forty-seven out of 50 states accepted it, including far-away Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island - states that have a lot in common.... And I've been to a lot of meetings up there where people are very concerned about losing out on the federal funding.... A first cousin to Goals 2000 is the Department of Education. I'm the only candidate running who wants to keep the Department of Education.... Why do I want to keep the Department of Education? Because when the Cabinet officers sit down ... I think somebody ought to be there speaking for education. I think education is a matter for local control.... But that doesn't preclude the leadership role of the Department of Education or Goals 2000.

What's your position on entitlements reform, particularly Medicare? Could you see some adjustment of the Social Security system?

Social Security is pretty much off the table ... at this point. And as to Medicare, I'm taking a very close look.... I think the first contract we have, ahead of the Contract With America, is the contract with the citizens who are the Medicare beneficiaries.... I'm not quite sure how it plays out.

Do you also see a contract with low-income Americans over Medicaid?

I think that's a national consensus and a congressional consensus. There's a lot of disagreement on how you get there, whether you can get there with a block grant, or whether you have to have standards.

Why does the Republican field of presidential candidates continue to raise skepticism?

That's very, very hard to say. The most attractive candidate consistently, year after year ... is the person who hasn't gotten into the race.... I think that some of the Republican candidates have suffered from trimming their sails to the political winds.... I have a lot of admiration and respect for Bob Dole.... He and I are from the same little town.... His changes of positions ... have hurt him a lot.

What are your thoughts on foreign policy?

I start ... with a couple of basic propositions: that there has to be a very careful determination of vital national interests; and the US has to marshall its assets in the world.... Let me give you one illustration as to what I think the president ought to be doing.... Before I do that, I want to give him credit for the Mideast. I think he's done a first-rate job, and so has the secretary of state, in shepherding those talks....

I was in India and met with Prime Minister Rao.... He said, ''My deepest desire is to see the subcontinent nuclear free.'' Well, next day we ... were in Pakistan, [and] talked to Benazir Bhutto, and told her and she said, ''Did you get it in writing? ... We'd love to see that happen.'' Those two prime ministers have not talked to each other and they've got a nuclear confrontation in the making.... If the president ... would call those two people into the Oval Office, he could get them to talk to each other, and he could do a world of good....

Take his policy in Bosnia, where I think he has been wrong and uninvolved. I said a long time ago, as did a number of other senators, that we should unilaterally withdraw the arms embargo to allow the Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves; that the peacekeepers should be withdrawn because there was no peace to keep; and we should use our massive air power. And we passed it.... Clinton vetoed it.... Before we could move to override the veto, he finally became active. And he's done a good job since.... Because when the United States gets involved, everybody stops, looks, and listens.... I think a really enormous problem, which the president has not come to grips with, is the problem of weapons of mass destruction.... This president has not been nearly sufficiently engaged in foreign policy. That's a major Achilles' heel....

What about drugs and crime?

Drugs, next to the economy ... is the most serious domestic problem we have.... We've had a drug czar who's been very inept.... And we have a major problem on crime-control in America. We need some real leadership out of the White House. A long time ago we should have taken the money out of international interdiction.... We need a lot more emphasis on education, on the so-called demand side, rehabilitation and education....

What we need on juvenile crime is early intervention. It is no surprise that if you have a functional illiterate without a trade or a skill, who leaves jail, they go back in that revolving door.... And if they become career criminals, then it's fair and necessary to have life sentences.

How would you help heal some of the racial divide in the country?

When I was elected district attorney of Philadelphia, one of the first things I did was to try to hire every African-American lawyer I could find.... And it was tough to do because there were so few lawyers. When it came to detectives, which I drew from the police department, I had no trouble. This is the sort of affirmative action that I think is very sound: to give people confidence in the criminal courts, where you have a lot of African-American defendants. You have to take affirmative action off the table as a political buzzword. We need to strengthen the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission].... The best way to deal with discrimination is on an individual, case-by-case basis. But that unit has a 100,000-case backlog....

We need to help the inner-city schools. I have helped fund experiments on privatization and charter schools. I'm not for vouchers [for private schools], but I think within the public schools we need to try to experiment and improve the schools.... We have to be sensitive to the problems in housing and try to lead for more home ownership.

Please comment on your proposal for a 20-percent flat tax.

This (holding up a 10-line post card) is a federal income-tax return under an Arlen Specter presidency. It will take you 15 minutes to fill out. Even more important than its simplicity is its pro-growth features. It will add $2 trillion to the gross national product in seven years, lower interest rates by 2 percent, knock down this enormous [legal] superstructure,... unleash American ingenuity, without the constraints of the code. [Economists] Hall and Rabushka ... have found that the Internal Revenue Code takes up 5,400,000,000 hours of time [in compliance]. Fortune magazine estimates that it costs $600 billion in compliance costs. Business would pay $235 billion more ... under a flat tax, but ... they get [back] even more than that in compliance costs.... It has to be revenue neutral. I've included two deductions for middle-income Americans: One for charitable contributions up to $2,500, [one for] interest on home mortgages [up to] $100,000.

On women's issues:

My record on [these] may be a concern following the Hill-Thomas hearings.... It was a problem in '92.... And I surmounted the problem in Pennsylvania by saying candidly that those hearings were a learning experience for me.... I had no idea how much sexual harassment there was until after the hearings. Practically every woman told me she'd been sexually harassed and told me how painful the hearings were. I overcame it in my ['92] election because of my strong record on women's issues. I've always been pro-choice, always been [for breaking] the glass ceiling, [for] comparable pay for comparable work. [Sen.] Tom Harkin and I took the lead in putting in a new unit in the National Institutes of Health for women.... And many of the women who were against me in '92 ... are now for me.

* Interviews with other presidential candidates will appear in the runup to the primary season next February.

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