Specter no shoo-in

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter loves being in the spotlight, and he’s certainly been front and center over the last few months. But his place in the Senate — which he loves even more than publicity — is still very much in question.

Twice in March, I wrote in these pages that Specter faced an impossible task in a Republican primary, and that only a party switch could save him from a 2010 loss. Last week, he finally took the dramatic plunge and became a Democrat. But given that Specter clearly values political survival above any conviction or ideal, his immediate post-switch behavior appears inexplicably designed to attract a strong Democratic primary challenger.

Sure, Specter’s scathing indictment of his old party may have been popular with progressives, but he gave his new party little reason to clear the primary field. His first act as a Democrat was a proud refusal to back off his recent flip-flop on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Specter had cravenly abandoned the labor reform legislation he had previously co-sponsored in order to curry favor with the GOP primary electorate, but rather than rectify that blunder, he decided to stay the course. “My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats than I have been for the Republicans,” he declared.

In fact, Specter has gone out of his way to stress what a disloyal Democrat he plans to be. After being quoted in The Wall Street Journal and on NBC telling President Obama, “I’m a loyal Democrat. I support your agenda,” he recoiled at the notion on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” telling David Gregory, “I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat.” When Gregory asked him to name the issues on which he would stray from the president, Specter quickly shot back, “You don’t have enough time, David.” If the list is that long (and apparently, it includes Obama’s healthcare plan), why’d he switch parties?

Well, Specter claimed he switched because he refused to leave his fate up to his state’s conservative GOP primary voters. But if he wanted to chart an “independent” course, maybe he should’ve become an Independent. Instead, his fate now rests with Pennsylvania’s Democratic base. And insulting them while opposing the popular president’s agenda is no path to primary success.

But Specter is betting that the Democratic establishment will clear the primary field for him, and indeed, Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have indicated support for the incumbent. If he would re-embrace EFCA, powerful Pennsylvania labor would be with him too, essentially clearing the field. Instead, the party leadership now finds itself split from its rank and file.

“I cannot see the unions across the board supporting Specter if he cannot support EFCA,” Rep. Joe Sestak, a possible Democratic challenger, told the Plum Line’s Greg Sargent after meeting with Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern. “Stern let it be known that it’s very much on the top of their agenda.” Top AFL-CIO leadership has made similar noises.

Sestak, the highest-ranking military officer ever to serve in Congress, has over $3 million in the bank and won his seat with strong net- and grassroots support, making him a known commodity with a compelling story. “If he doesn’t demonstrate that he has shifted his position on a number of issues, I would not hesitate at all to get in,” he promises.

The Democratic Party establishment may promise a clear primary, but unless Specter acts the part of a Democratic senator, he may find those well-intentioned promises to be quite empty at the polls.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com).