In my new biography of I.F. Stone, legendary investigative journalist and one-time Washington correspondent for this magazine, I occasionally use the term "liberal" with what some readers may consider a lack of due reverence. If we are all, as Newsweek recently insisted, socialists now, then surely we ought to be even more delighted to answer to the name liberal. To which eminently reasonable argument I can only reply: not so fast. There are really two points here. The first, perhaps lesser, is that truth in labeling matters. If what we want is a society where the market is not the supreme arbiter of values, and where goods are allocated at least partly on the basis of need or other social criteria rather than simply ability to pay, we ought to say so, loud and proud. So although many of my oldest friends are liberals, I wouldn’t use the L-word to describe my own politics.
What does this have to do with Arlen Specter? Partly I’m trying to figure out why the news that he’d crossed the aisle made me smile this morning. I don’t think I have a sentimental take on how rapidly, even with 60 Democrats, the U.S. Senate is likely to bring about the blessed community. And although somewhere in our barn in Vermont I still have the campaign button my father, a Democratic precinct captain, wore when Specter, then a registered Democrat, but, far more important in our household, a Jew, ran for District Attorney of Philadelphia, I don’t think filial devotion or ethnic loyalty explains it either. Certainly Arlen Specter is no Bernie Sanders (though of course the Nation has had plenty of arguments with Vermont’s socialist senator over the years as well).
Trying to get a quick handle on what Specter stood for (apart from not having to run in a Republican primary he looked like losing) I went to the Americans for Democratic Action, whose voting scorecard is often used by lazy journalists as a kind of gold standard for liberalism. Taking the ADA’s quick "How liberal are you?" quiz I scored a gratifying 100 per cent–though I confess I wobbled a bit on parental notification (we have 3 kids) and felt the economic questions were pretty tepid stuff (but then they are based on congressional votes, so no surprise there. Nor any chance to vote for sending Bush and Cheney to the Hague.) Specter scored 45 per cent–not in the same league as Schumer, Klobuchar, Sanders, Feingold and other 100 per centers, but more liberal than Bob Dole or John Warner. In fact the only other Senator who matched Specter’s score was the (former) junior Senator from Illinois, who sent his own congratulations to the new Democrat yesterday.
What’s cheering about all this is not that Specter has joined the ranks of ADA liberals–a group who come in for a fair amount of well-earned abuse in my book (which, though perhaps an indication of my poor judgement, is also testimony to the saintly patience of my editor, Elisabeth Sifton, whose father was one of the group’s founders.) No, what I find cheering is the thought that despite the tanking economy, an underpowered stimulus package and Democratic complicity in two disastrous wars, the calculation of self-interest still goes against the tea-baggers, dittoheads and other Republican fear mongers. Liberals and those of us on their left are going to have to get used to the fact that, in terms of the national mood, all of us who want to see radical change are pushing at an open door. If we push together, who knows how far we can get?