Death of a centrist

Death of a centrist

Whenever we got a call from Sen. Arlen Specter’s office — and it happened more often than you may think — the conversation went something like this:

The senator is passing through Pittsburgh on such and such a date, would we like to meet and talk?

That’s it. No agendas. Very often, it wasn’t even an election year. Just Arlen Specter keeping the lines of communication open. Sometimes he would come to our office; sometimes we would go to him; it didn’t matter. He always made time.

We think that willingness to sit, talk and exchange ideas was what made Specter such a great legislator — the kind that is in frighteningly short supply these days.

Specter, as you have heard many times since his death Sunday, was a centrist. He believed more in getting things done than in adhering to some partisan dogma. He didn’t think compromise was a dirty word, as many of today’s congressional representatives and state legislators do.

That doesn’t mean he was above playing political hardball from time to time. As the political cartoon on page 7 suggests, Specter made enemies on both sides of the aisle throughout his 30-year career in the Senate. Many liberals remember his tough treatment of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and pulled their support.  Many conservatives were angered by the way he broke ranks on several hot-button issues, and how he ultimately broke with the Republican Party altogether.   

In both camps, many people never forgave him.

That doesn’t matter. Centrists are bound to anger blocs of people on either side of the fence; it’s inevitable. But the payoff makes the risk worthwhile. It’s called progress.

Specter, we believe, was on the right side of many issues in his career — Israel, fair housing, health care, judicial reform, federal surveillance, to name just a few.

None of these issues is black and white. There are nuances to all of them that do not fit neatly into a conservative or liberal platform. That’s where the centrists come in. They’re the ones who can fashion compromise — the kind of compromise that allows both sides to declare victory. Specter was one of those centrists.

In fact, he may very well have been one of the last of the centrists. Many members of Congress, like Specter, frustrated with the mean-spirited politics that grip Capitol Hill, are choosing not to seek re-election. Many others, including Specter, have lost their re-election bids to extremist challengers who vow not to compromise their views once they’re in office.

That may sound like a principled position, but all it has done is divide the country to a degree we have not seen in more than 100 years.

The real principled position is that of the centrist, the compromiser, the one who can have dialogue with the other side. That’s how our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were framed. In other words, compromise is what made America.

Specter understood that. The Great Centrist will be missed.