Just Too Cocky

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May 5, 2009 6:43 a.m.

Last week Arlen Specter’s election as a Democrat in 2010 seemed more or less a given. The big man in Pennsylvania politics (Ed Rendell) and the big man in US politics (Barack Obama) both put down their finger and said they were behind him.

But the certainty of that outcome now seems genuinely in doubt. He’s got an ambitious (and there’s nothing wrong with that) and aggressive potential opponent in Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA). And even more important than that he’s got a critical constituency, organized labor, visibly warming to opposing him in next year’s Democratic primary. (Remember a couple key points: Labor is a big deal in Pennsylvania and Specter’s in the past always relied on strong labor backing.)

What’s most striking about this whole turn of events though is that if Specter is in any real trouble it is a predicament entirely of his own making, an unforced error of almost galactic proportions.

As we’ve discussed a few times over the last week, there was some political logic to Specter not moving too quickly or fulsomely to embrace Democratic positions, especially since he’d spent the last few months tacking hard to the right. But what we’ve seen over the last week goes way, way beyond anything like that. He’s dug in his heels opposing EFCA, said he’d oppose a key Obama DOJ appointee, staked out a surprisingly right-leaning (for him) position on health care reform and gone way past the first day bromides in signaling he won’t have any partisan attachment at all to his new political party. His line about not being a ‘loyal’ Democrat, after he apparently said just the opposite to President Obama, seems like a high profile diss of the president.

All of which is fine of course. He’s free to do whatever he wants. But he doesn’t seem to have grasped that his position wasn’t actually that strong. Republicans are certainly not taking Arlen back at this point. I haven’t looked deeply into the numbers. But it’s hard for me to see how the national GOP is going to knock Pat Toomey out of the running with some quasi-moderate ringer. If that’s right, Toomey’s the Republican nominee. Which would mean the Republicans are fielding an exceptional weak general election candidate.

So why do the Dems need Arlen, if probably any solid Democrat can beat Pat Toomey?

There’s another angle here too. Labor is really licking its wounds over what appears to be the very steep climb EFCA faces in this Congress. And the Democratic establishment in Washington moved very quickly to crown Specter as the Democratic nominee. It would not surprise me if labor and affiliated organizations might not mind engaging in a amicable Specter-Sestak proxy battle with President Obama and the lords of the senate to make the point that as much as everything’s great and everyone’s pals, they’ve got their own independent bases of power and political muscle.

Before we get too far down this path let me grant you a lot of dominos have to fall into place before Specter finds himself out of a job. The Democratic senators and the president have giving their full backing and that means quite a lot. That and a lot else. But why and how exactly did Specter get himself into this position? After watching the last week I get the sense he’s just too cocky for his own good.

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