Transcript: Arlen Specter on Meet the Press – Supreme Court & Party Switching
(Source: NBC’s Meet the Press)
MR. GREGORY: We are back, and joining us live now from Philadelphia, the Senate’s newest Democrat, Arlen Specter.
Senator, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
SEN. SPECTER: Thank you, David. Nice to be with you.
MR. GREGORY: Thank you. Your decision–or since your decision there’s been some pretty big news. We’ll get to the reasons for your decision in just a moment. But I want to talk about the retirement of Justice Souter and the vacancy to the Supreme Court that President Obama will now fill. You have a fair amount of experience with this as the former Judiciary chairman, and you might return to that post even as a Democrat. So what kind of justice should President Obama be looking for?
SEN. SPECTER: He should be looking for someone with a strong academic and professional background. It would be my hope that he would choose someone with diversity. Women are underrepresented on the court. We don’t have an Hispanic. African-Americans are underrepresented. I would hope that he would look beyond the circuit courts of appeals which now populate the Supreme Court and pick someone with greater world experience and diversity.
MR. GREGORY: That’s important. Are you suggesting that he should not pick a judge, but perhaps a politician or a leader from another discipline in life?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, maybe not a politician. Perhaps a statesman or a stateswoman. But all of the justices now have been on the circuit courts of appeals and they have lives and experiences which are all very similar. And we live in a very diverse country with a lot of different interests, and I think that it’s important to have an Hispanic on the court at some point, important to have more than just one woman on the court and more than one African-American. And it would be good to get people who know something besides wearing a black robe.
MR. GREGORY: Do you have a candidate in mind and have you shared that with the White House?
SEN. SPECTER: I do not. I’m going to respect the Constitution. It’s up to the president to make the selection, and it’s up to me as one of the senators to consider the confirmation question.
MR. GREGORY: You mentioned the import of a woman on the court. Here are a few of the standouts that have been speculated about so far: Elena Kagan, she’s the solicitor general now; Sonia Sotomayor, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit; Kathleen Sullivan, director of Stanford’s Constitutional Law Center; and Diane Wood, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. Out of that list, do you think there’s a front-runner?
SEN. SPECTER: I don’t know. You’d have to ask President Obama.
MR. GREGORY: All right. The president said the other day, and he said this repeatedly, that he wants an empathetic justice on the Supreme Court. Empathetic. Is that code to you for an activist judge?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, we look to the court to interpret the Constitution and the statutes passed by Congress and not to make laws. There is no doubt that the standards and values in our country have shifted, as Cardozo said in the Palko case years ago. There was a time when equal protection meant that the Senate galleries were segregated, and we know how foolish that would be in modern day life. So there’s no doubt that there are changes with the times. But if you talk about empathy, you may be talking about something which is, which is broader. But we’ll have to test the nominee on that. Listen, the job of the United States Senate is to ask firm, really tough questions to find out whether the nominee has an open mind, whether the nominee respects the supremacy of the Constitution, whether the nominee will look to Congress to establish public policy. And there are going to be some empathetic factors, but basically we’re a nation with a rule of law.
MR. GREGORY: You’re a Democrat now, and so I ask you whether, in light of that switch, do you regret your support in the past for some of the more conservative members of this court: Alito, Roberts, Clarence Thomas?
SEN. SPECTER: I do, I do not. Remember, I was a leading voice opposite–opposing Judge Bork, a Republican. Got a lot of brickbats for that. Not a month passes by today without my hearing about Judge Bork. He was a leading Republican candidate. So I’ve not hesitated to oppose Republicans, a Republican when I thought he was out of the mainstream of American jurisprudence.
MR. GREGORY: All right, let me ask you about this switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party. Back in April of this year on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” you said this: “So I’m trying to bring back those voters to the Republican Party. We need balance and I’m trying to get people to register Republican. We need a second party. Look here, our country is built on checks and balances. The only check and balance in America today are the 41 Republican Senators who can talk and filibuster, otherwise, the White House, the House of Representatives will be a steamroller.” Well, Senator, you’ve now decided to join that steamroller. What changed?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, well, since that time I undertook a very thorough survey of Republicans in Pennsylvania with polling and a lot of personal contacts, and it became apparent to me that my chances to be elected on the Republican ticket were, were bleak. And I’m simply not going to subject my 29-year record in the United States Senate to that Republican primary electorate. I’m not going to do that.
Now, with respect to the steamroller, I have shown repeatedly my independence, willing to cross party lines when I thought the interests of the American people in Pennsylvania were required it. Take one example: There’s a bill on employees choice known as Card Check, which would take away the secret ballot and impose mandatory arbitration. I said when I made the switch I’m still against that bill. Democrats are all for it, Republicans are all against it and I’m the critical vote. And if see that there are other issues where I feel as a matter of conscience, I will continue a filibuster against legislation.
MR. GREGORY: Are there other issues right now that you can name where you don’t see eye to eye with this president?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, I’m not going to start to explore a long range of issues. I, I’m not going to do that to…
MR. GREGORY: All right. Well…
SEN. SPECTER: You don’t, you, you don’t have enough time, David.
MR. GREGORY: Well, hey, we can make time. We’re going to get to a few issues in a couple of minutes, but I want to stick to this point, what you’re saying, this was politics. This was a cold, hard political reality check. This is what David Broder wrote in his column in the Washington Post, and it was pretty pointed. Look at the headline: “Specter the Defector. The one consistency in the history of Arlen Specter has been his willingness to do whatever will best protect and advance the career of Arlen Specter. … So, once again, Specter is likely to reap political rewards from his maneuvering. But the Democrats should be open-eyed about what they are gaining from his return to his original political home. Specter’s history shouts the lesson that he will stick with you only as long as it serves his own interests–and not a day longer.” You’re about to stand for re-election as a Democrat. Do you think that reputation hurts you?
SEN. SPECTER: I think it’s a, a misreading. I do not think it is true. I can pick up any of the issues and tell you what my reasons were, and I think I have very strong reasons for all of them. There’s more than being re-elected here. There’s the factor of principle. The Republican Party has gone far to the right since I joined it under Reagan’s big tent. When I came to the Senate, you had a roomful of moderate Republicans, Hines and Weicker and Stafford and Chafee and Danforth and on and on. And in recent times I have diverged materially from the Republican line. And the critical factor, David, as most–many people know, was the stimulus package.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
SEN. SPECTER: I bucked the Republican line, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and I, and that created a schism. My approval rating dropped 30 points with Republicans as a result of that vote, so that as the pictures has evolved I felt a lot more comfortable as a matter of principle with Democrats than with Republicans.
MR. GREGORY: All right.
SEN. SPECTER: Let me mention…
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
SEN. SPECTER: …one other important point, and that is my work in the Senate on medical research. I’ve been a major–maybe the major spear carrier for the National Institutes of Health. And I’m trying to get more federal funding. I’ve opened up a Web site, specterforthecure.com. If we had pursued the war on cancer which President Nixon declared in 1970, Jack Kemp might be alive today. This medical research has prolonged or saved many lives, including mine. And The New York Times today has a column, when you compare my work on medical research it makes party allegiance look pretty small.
MR. GREGORY: I want to move on, though, to the question of what it took for the Democrats to get you. What were you offered? What inducements have you been given to switch parties?
SEN. SPECTER: None.
MR. GREGORY: None.
SEN. SPECTER: None.
MR. GREGORY: You won’t retain your seniority, as you move over, on, on key committees?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, that is, that is, that is true. But…
MR. GREGORY: That’s not an inducement, Senator?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, no, that’s an entitlement. I’ve earned, I’ve earned the seniority. I was elected in 1980. And I think that’s, that’s not a bribe or a gift or something extraordinary. I will be treated by the Democrats as if I’d been elected as a Democrat.
MR. GREGORY: What about how you stand for election? Has the Democratic Party–Leader Reid, Governor Rendell in Pennsylvania and the president himself–seen to it, have they seen to it that you will not face a primary challenger?
SEN. SPECTER: They have not. Flatly not.
MR. GREGORY: But the president said he’s going to campaign for you.
SEN. SPECTER: Well…
MR. GREGORY: Who’s going to step up against you when the president’s declared his intention in the primary?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, well, that’s a different question. You asked me if they’ve cleared the field, and they have not. There, there are two candidates in the field and there are others on the sidelines; one other, specifically, who’s talking about running. I didn’t ask them to clear the field. The reality is you can’t tell other people what to do. I’m prepared to run in a contested primary. But I don’t want to run against a stacked deck like I would have had to against the Republican primary electorate.
MR. GREGORY: You know that Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security and governor of Pennsylvania, is thinking about getting into the Republican primary race. Do you think he could win what you couldn’t?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, I think former Governor Ridge is a very able fellow, and I have a lot of respect for him.
MR. GREGORY: One potential challenger is Congressman Joe Sestak, and he was interviewed in the Los Angeles Times talking about exactly what kind of Democrat you would be. And this is what he said: “[Sestak] said that Specter would have to answer a series of questions in the coming weeks, such as why Democratic voters should view him as a leader in their party when he failed to prevent the GOP from moving to the hard right. `What are you running for, Arlen?’ Sestak asked. `How are you going to use your leadership to shape the Democratic Party? Is it to the way we believe Pennsylvania should be helped? And the platform we should follow? Are you a Democrat, an independent or a Republican?’” You always talked about core conservative values when you ran for president. What are your core political beliefs now?
SEN. SPECTER: My core views are freedom, a woman’s right to choose, consistently voted for increasing the minimum wage, for expanding unemployment compensation, for the nuclear test ban treaty, where I broke with Republicans. I got into politics, David, as the result of the inspiration of my father, who was a Russian immigrant, who was a veteran in World War I. The government broke the promise to pay World War I veterans a bonus. And Harry Specter was a little guy. And you take a look at my record in the Senate, or my record in public life generally, I’ve always been for the little guy. I say in a sense that I, I’m on my way–I was on my way to Washington to get my father’s bonus. I haven’t gotten it yet, so I’m running for re-election. But I’ve helped the veterans. I’ve broken with the party on, on funding for veterans. I’ve broken with the party on voting for Social Security increases. My record has been issue-oriented, one at a time. And I think as a matter of principle–listen, the stimulus vote was a mighty big test. It cost me dearly with the Republicans. And I stood with the Democrats because I thought it was right. I thought otherwise this country might have been on the verge of a 1929 Depression. And I new it was politically problemsome, perhaps disastrous. I represent the people of Pennsylvania, not any political party.
MR. GREGORY: It was reported this week that when you met with the president you said, “I will be a loyal Democrat. I support your agenda.” Let me test that on probably one of the most important areas of his agenda, and that’s health care. Would you support health care reform that puts up a government-run public plan to complete with a private plan issued by a private insurance company?
SEN. SPECTER: No. And you misquote me, David. I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat. I did not say that. And last week, after I said I was changing parties, I voted against the budget because the budget has a way to pass health care with a 51 votes, which undermines a basic Senate institution to require 60 votes to impose cloture on, on key issues. But I…
MR. GREGORY: All right, just to be clear, Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal Jonathan Weisman and Greg Hitt reported that when you met with the president you said, “I’m a loyal Democrat,” and, according to people familiar with the White House, “I support your agenda.” So that’s wrong? You didn’t say those things?
SEN. SPECTER: I did not say I’m a loyal Democrat. You know, I read once another mistake in the newspaper, some newspaper.
MR. GREGORY: Let me–I just want to turn, then, to the issue of health care. You would not support a public plan?
SEN. SPECTER: That’s what I said…
MR. GREGORY: OK.
SEN. SPECTER: …and that’s what I meant.
MR. GREGORY: Do you support taxing the value of, the value of employer-provided health care for workers?
SEN. SPECTER: No, I’d be very reluctant to do that. Health care provided by employers, which is deductible for them and not added on as income to the recipient, has been the mainstay of health coverage for millions of Americans, and I’d be very reluctant to abandon that.
MR. GREGORY: So the health care reform you would like to see is what?
SEN. SPECTER: I would, I would like to see all Americans covered. I’ve joined with the Wyden-Bennett plan, has 14 co-sponsors. I would like to see health care which emphasizes exercise and diet and, and makes premiums lower on that basis. I would like to see health care which had very tough prosecution against Medicare and Medicaid fraud, put people in jail as opposed to fines, which are licenses to steal. I would emphasize National Institute of Health research. What better way to reduce the cost of health care than to, than to have–prevent illness? I would support advanced directives, where we find so much of medical care is paid for the in the last few hours or few days or a person’s life. Not to tell people what to do on their care at that time, but have them, have them think about it. I support programs which improves technology, as the stimulus package has $19 billion. I’ve been in this field for a long time and have a lot of ideas, participated in the president’s task force, and I’m ready to put my shoulder to the wheel to get legislation adopted. But I’m going to take a look at it piece by piece. I’m not committed.
MR. GREGORY: Finally, Senator Specter, what is the future of the Republican Party, the party you have now left behind?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, it would be hope, David, that there would be a, a wake-up call. It would be my hope that there would be a strong two-party system. That’s what I’ve worked for for a long time, trying to bring back the Republican Party in the city of Philadelphia, trying to bring back the Republican Party nationally. And I have campaigned for Republican candidates and moderates. It would be my hope that the party would turn away from the Club for Growth. Let me be very specific here. The Club for Growth has undertaken campaigns to defeat moderate Republicans in the primaries, knowing that they would lose in the general election. I give you a long list. But take one case which was slightly different on procedure, and that was Linc Chafee. Club for Growth beat Linc Chafee, made him spend all his money in the primary. Had Linc Chafee been elected in 2006, the Republican Party would’ve controlled the Senate in 2007 and ’8 and would’ve confirmed 34 Republican judges which were left on the table unconfirmed. And I think that my colleague Senator Olympia Snowe had it right in her New York Times op-ed piece that you have to have a big tent.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
SEN. SPECTER: You can’t–listen, I voted 10,000 times. I don’t expect people to agree with all my votes. I don’t agree with all of them at this time. But can you imagine picking one vote out of 10,000 and having the party say to me, in effect, “We don’t want you as our candidate”? So there has to be room for people who are, who are moderates.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
SEN. SPECTER: It has to be Reagan’s big tent again.
MR. GREGORY: All right, Senator Arlen Specter, thank you very much for appearing this morning.
SEN. SPECTER: Great being with you, David. Thank you.