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Monday, May 17, 2010  

A Politician With Nothing Left to Run For is a Dangerous Thing

So my heart is with Joe Sestak tomorrow in Pennsylvania, not so much because I have any feelings either way about Arlen Specter as I think Sestak would be a stronger candidate in November. But as a Pennsylvania contact reminded me today, there's no telling what a cut-loose Specter would do between tomorrow and leaving office.

People complain about politicians being unprincipled, but I don't really care about that. Politics is about governing, not about burnishing one's own self-image. I care about votes. As long as Specter was providing the votes, I didn't care that he was not especially principled. A self-interested politician is rational and responds to effective pressure. For Specter, the pressure was coming from his left for once rather than his right. This is, by and large, a good thing if you assume that democracy in general is a good thing.

But if Specter loses, as informed opinion seems to think likely, then you've got an up-in-years senator of no discernible ideology on your hands at a very testy moment for a whole lot of legislative issues. What then? I don't know, and worse yet, I don't know how I or anyone else would know. A younger politician could be induced to play for the team in hopes of an executive branch appointment or a think tank or lobbying job. What emolument do you dangle in front of an 80-year-old?

This would be less important if the fall's near-certain reduction in the Senate Democratic caucus didn't render this year's lawmaking much more important than next year's. As Ross Douthat reminds us every time his party narrows itself, it's satisfying to clean partisan house. But that's not what matters most. Legislating matters most, and for that we still need ol' Arlen.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:28 PM
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