Game-Changers: Specter Jumps, Souter Quits

All eyes are  on Obama but the real story at mid-springtime is not how he has vaulted effortlessly over the lowest bar in political history – being a better president than his predecessor —  but the collapse of the Republican opposition.

The sun has dipped low in the sky over the Republican Party as the Other Leading Brand. A mere 21 per cent of the adult population now identify themselves as Republicans.

Last week the present low ebb of the party of Lincoln was vividly illustrated by the defection from its ranks of Senator Arlen Specter. This is a transition of prime political importance. Only six weeks ago the senior senator from Pennsylvania was insisting that “I am staying a Republican because I think I have an important role, a more important role, to play there. The United States very desperately needs a two-party system. That’s the basis of politics in America. I’m afraid we are becoming a one-party system, with Republicans becoming just a regional party with so little representation of the Northeast or in the middle Atlantic.”

But Specter was facing a difficult Republican primary, the opening act of his bid to be reelected for a sixth term. The senator, who began his political career as a Democrats is classed as a Republican “moderate”, meaning that albeit hawkish on foreign policy he has had friendly relations with organized labor – powerful in Pennsylvania – and is pro choice.

Specter saw the writing on the wall, defeat in the primary by a far-right Republican zealot. Sensibly, he prefers to make his run under the ample Democratic banner, rather than get mangled in the tiny shark tank of a Republican primary attended only by people who want to see the country run by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

With Democrat Al Franken finally certified as the winner by a few hundred votes against Norm Coleman in Minnesota, with Specter crossing the aisle and vice president Joe Biden in reserve, the Democrats can no longer hide behind the excuse of a Republican filibuster, as a way of saying that they can’t put up “divisive” bills, such as public enemy number one for corporate America: the “card check” law that would make it easier (i.e., from the virtually impossible to the merely arduous) to organize a union. Even without Biden, they’ll have the 60 votes.  Specter had been pro-card check, had reversed position amid plummeting poll numbers among Republicans likely to vote in the primary, now may revert to his former posture. This doesn’t mean the Democrats will now smile on  a retooled Employee Free Choice bill. This is a bottom-line issue for corporate America as much as for labor and, politically, corporate America holds the higher cards.

The class war  in America already has adequate representation  inside the Democratic Party, so tremulous predictions by right-wing Republicans of a looming one-party state are silly. But Specter’s move shows how the Republican Party is reeling . Six months ago, 32 per cent of voters in the presidential election identified themselves as Republican.

Since then the Republican leadership has had one dumb idea after another, most conspicuously with the big No on Obama’s economic stimulus bill. Amid crisis, they have no ideas, beyond insisting that water-boarding captives is a terrific idea and saved America. They have no doughty champions. Governor Sarah Palin has been beached in unseemly wrangles with the father of her grandchild. Her replacement as the far-right’s Joan of Arc is Carrie Prejean, defender of the sanctity of marriage only between people of differing sex, pipped of her shot at Miss USA because of her honesty, now facing a mini-crisis because it turns out the Miss California Organization paid for her breast implants. The Republican Party doesn’t need Ms Prejean any more than it needed Gov. Sarah.

Republicans in Congress have been gloomily reading the polls. Friday’s Washington Post announced the formation of the National Council for a New America, designed to showcase fresh Republican  thinking on the big issues, which turn out NOT  to include same sex marriage, abortion and immigration, precisely the topics inflaming the  Republican base. House minority whip Eric Canter of Virginia says demurely that the National Council hopes to start a “conversation” on education, health care, energy, the economy and national security. The conversation is scheduled to start with Mitt Romney  conversing with 70 Republicans  – Gov. Palin has been invited, though apparently not Ms Prejean – in an Italian restaurant in Washington DC.

But precisely at this moment of crisis for the Republicans, there is a ray of hope that matters weightier than silicon implants will come to their rescue. Justice David Souter has announced he is stepping down from the US Supreme Court. At a relatively youthful 69, he says he’s sick of Washington DC and wants to go back to his log cabin in New Hampshire.

Souter has always been an oddball, ever since George Bush Sr picked a man he thought was  a right-wing judge. To the Republicans’ chagrin Souter swiftly disclosed himself to be of independent views and is now regarded as the second most liberal of the nine-person court, after Justice John Paul Stevens.

If Obama nominates a liberal, the Republicans will have a serious issue to ride, to raise money on, and they can certainly stretch the definition of liberal to include anyone who doesn’t have a ringing endorsement of torture, of the right to life, of the right to bear arms, of the sanctity of the heterosexual marriage contract, on their judicial resume.

In line behind Souter as candidates for  retirement or summary removal by the Reaper are Stevens, who turned 89 on April 20, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who just had surgery for pancreatic cancer. Two more liberals. Obama could well be nominating  three new Supreme Court justices in his first term.  He no longer has the alibi of a threatened Republican filibuster as excuse to pick a “centrist”. Thus far he’s faced no serious opposition from either the right or the left, even though the issue of whether to call Bush-era torturers to account has prompted polite liberal catcalls at the President for his transparent cowardice on this issue.

Fights over who should sit on the U.S. Supreme Court are always serious. It’s an opening for the Republicans but one that will most fervidly arouse its Christian right base, precisely at the moment that Canter, John McCain, Lindsey  Graham and Republican elders are trying to reposition the party. For liberals it will be a call to Obama to step up to the plate and really show what he’s made of.  The irony is that Republican presidents nominated the two most liberal court members. And it was the Republican Eisenhower who nominated legendary liberal William Brennan on the bench in 1956.

Tom Friedman, You’re Next!

Ten years ago NATO and its battle-commander Wesley Clark deliberately murdered 16 journalists and kindred media workers, who had the courage and the misfortune to be working at Radio Television Serbia (RTS).  At 2.06 am local a bomb launched from the NATO plane slammed into the building – news desks, studios, and the makeup room – in downtown Belgrade. Most of the victims were young people – a makeup artist, technicians and production personnel.

It was an obvious war crime. Amnesty International  issued a report in 2000 saying so and reiterated this charge last week: NATO should be held accountable for the lives of those killed at RTS: “the bombing of the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television was a deliberate attack on a civilian object and as such constitutes a war crime”.

In the new issue of our CounterPunch newsletter Tiphaine Dickson lays out the outrageous saga of how the Western powers dealt  with this atrocity, by sponsoring a kangaroo court in Belgrade which sentencedto a lengthy term one of the targets of the bomb!   This was the director of RTS , Dragoljub Milanovic,. He drew nine and a half years in prison for reckless endangerment of his staff!  Newspapers like the New York Times raised not a word of protest at NATO’s claim that RTS deserved to be bombed. As Mark Ames argued  some years ago in the New York Press, warmongers in the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere should be subjected to the same logic NATO used for bombing the TV tower, citing some convention that propagandizing for war that leads to civilian death and destruction can be a war crime, and makes the propagandizer/organ a legitimate target for military action. That is: bomb Fred Hiatt’s cubicle, and Tom Friedman’s hybrid!

Tiphaine Dickson, a defense attorney specialized in international criminal law, recently visited Milanovic in prison, and discovered he is eligible for parole but his persecutors are trying to lock him away for a further term.  In her riveting story she gives close attention to the murky role of CNN and of Eason Jordan, then chief news executive of CNN international and later – by a satisfactory irony, fired by CNN for alleging that the US military was deliberately targeting journalists in Iraq.

Subscribe now to read this important story. In the same exciting issue you’ll get former US Senator Jim Abourezk on Wounded Knee and  co-editor Cockburn on one of the crucibles for the Sixties upsurge, Stiles Hall in Berkeley, and its amazing director at that time, Harry Kingman.
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A shorter version of the first item appears in The First Post.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.