Welcome Into the Democratic Fold, Arlen

Posted May 11, 2009 at 1:20pm

An open letter to Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.):

Over the years I’ve appreciated your advice, even when I didn’t take it. This time, here’s some counsel from an elder of the Democratic tribe: Don’t spend your time worrying about the way that the media have spent their time proclaiming your motive to be nothing but self-interest. They’ve crossed the line from healthy skepticism into mere cynicism. Measuring others’ motives is a waste of time.

You’ve been straightforward about your aim of winning re-election and your hope to do so by changing party. What counts will be the results — what you are able to do, with your new party and the president, to help move America forward. Time will tell. As an optimistic friend, I hope the results will be substantial and good for the country.

The current preoccupation with motives reminds me of a moment in the shaping of the Peace Corps in 1961 when Sargent Shriver assembled an eminent group of psychologists to develop a selection process for Peace Corps volunteers. We added respected Harvard University sociologist David Riesman.

After listening to the experts propose tests designed to weed out volunteers who were not dedicated altruists and select only those whose motive was purely service, Riesman spoke up. “Stop it, you are trying to select saints,— he told the group. “Saints don’t need a Peace Corps, and the Peace Corps doesn’t need saints. It needs adventurous, intelligent, mixed-motive Americans who are ready for extraordinary challenges.—

The Senate wouldn’t know what to do with a saint. You are an adventurous, intelligent, mixed-motive American. You’ve already done much for the country and seem ready for extraordinary new challenges. Now, you’re boldly taking this chance to make history as a larger player in the great game of self-government.

Knowing your sharp mind, I think you will like working with a thinking, listening, learning President Barack Obama. I’ve long thought that what you call “the philosophy of the Democrats— would be more congenial for you than that of dominant, nay-saying Republican leaders.

Notwithstanding your first experience with the Democratic caucus on the complex matter of seniority in committees and the backfire from your brief television rooting for Norm Coleman (R) in Minnesota, I believe the outcome of your return to the Democratic Party after long absence will be good for you, the president and the American people.

With warm memories of working with you in the Senate on many matters and sometimes riding homeward with you and then-Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) on the train to Wilmington and Philadelphia listening to the two of you swapping stories, you will always be the “senior Senator from Pennsylvania.— Your seniority will continue to be the case, regardless of how your committee assignments are worked out, now or after you are elected as a Democrat.

Winning that election may well be harder than you, the governor and the president have foreseen. As the full-time chairman of the state Democratic Party during Bob Casey’s 1986 gubernatorial campaign, and active with the party ever since, I know how independent-minded the voters of Pennsylvania can be. On a number of occasions, primary voters in our party have gone contrary to the decision of the state committee or the governor.

In assessing your new constituency, remember that many have not forgotten the role that you played on the Senate floor in defeating the Clinton health care plan. That, of course, had a personal sting for me. After an upset electoral victory in 199l, I carried the banner of health insurance for all into the Senate. By 1994, that banner was tattered — and Rick Santorum (R) was able to unseat me.

During the long health care debates you repeatedly displayed a large, confusing diagram that made the Clinton plan look like a Rube Goldberg invention. Its devastating effect ranked with the negative “Harry and Louise— ads. Our inadequate rejoinder was an equally large chart showing the current health care system as an even more complicated maze. In recognition of your victory and a sign of forgiveness, I asked for an autographed copy of your chart, which I’ve kept as a reminder.

You will soon have the opportunity to show your affirmative side by helping to design and enact an acceptable bill that takes us a long way toward affordable health care for all. In politics, many of us don’t have a second chance. But on health care, you and Congress do.

In the 14 years since Santorum retired me from the Senate, you have supported the growth of citizen service and volunteering, including AmeriCorps, Service-Learning and the Senior Corps of the Corporation for National and Community Service where I was CEO.

At the president’s call for early action, and with your backing, Congress last month passed, with overwhelming votes, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. This bipartisan bill, initiated by Kennedy and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), authorizes a quantum leap forward in opportunities for full-time and part-time service for all ages. You’ve earned warm recognition for your support — and, with it, our expectation that you’ll help appropriate the funds necessary to reach the ambitious new goals set by the president and Congress.

On other fronts you are also needed now, as your voice and your vote were needed to pass the stimulus recovery bill. Problems of education, energy, the environment and our relations with the rest of the world cry out for constructive action. The way you can directly prove your skeptics and cynics wrong is to rise to this occasion.

By your surprise decision, you have now started the Pennsylvania Senate campaign. You have about a year before voters will decide the nominee. As you’ve noted, about 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans changed their registration to be able to vote for Barack Obama. Many more Republicans voted for him in the general election. The large majority of Pennsylvanians who voted for Obama now want him to succeed. The strongest case for them to vote for you is their hope that on crucial votes on most important items on the president’s agenda you can help him — and the country — succeed.

Alexander Hamilton said the Constitution was ratified not by the rhetoric of the Federalist Papers but by the harsh logic of events. Now, the harsh logic of our times calls for us to come together, above and beyond partisanship. In line with that logic, you have taken one big step on that new road.

Go well.

Former Sen. Harris Wofford (D) represented Pennsylvania from 1991 to 1995.