Next year’s Senate Republican primary in Pennsylvania—Sen. Arlen Specter versus former Rep. Pat Toomey—could be a battle for the soul of the GOP. But it’s not a liberal-versus-conservative battle as much as a Goldman Sachs-versus-Mom n Pop fight.
Campaign finance records show that Specter is Wall Street’s favorite Republican, and voting records show why. While Specter attacks Toomey as a banker, and tries to paint his donors as Wall Street fat cats, Toomey is actually a small businessman—having run a community bank that didn’t take bailout cash, and before that starting a neighborhood bar in Allentown, Pa.
As leading Republicans take sides in this scrum, this is the question they ought to ask: Will the GOP stay the course as the party of bailouts, big spending, and big business-big government collusion, or will it change tacks and reach out to Main Street and small businesses by actually acting on their professed belief in the free market?
Recall the big-government mistakes of the Bush years: The Medicare prescription drug benefit, the Wall Street bailouts, and the overspending in general. On these matters, Specter walked point for the GOP, helping craft the party’s policies.
When Specter has dissented from his party on important votes in recent months—Obama’s stimulus bill that shattered spending records and expansion of the State Children’s Health Initiative, for example—the Pennsylvania Republican was also taking the big business-big government side.
Let’s begin with the Great Wall Street Bailout of last fall—the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Specter aims to win some populist points by attacking Toomey as a “banker,” but Toomey and the Club for Growth opposed the TARP last fall, even while Republican Party leaders in both chambers, presidential nominee John McCain, and some conservative think tanks and columnists embraced it.
Specter, of course voted for the bill. Even though Specter rightly fretted aloud that it was being passed without proper scrutiny, he ultimately deferred to the experts that this massive injection of government into the industry was necessary to save the economy. Those “experts” also happened to be his donors.
Specter received more Wall Street cash in the 2004 cycle—his last election—than any other sitting GOP Senator. He was 6th among all senators, right behind Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and just ahead of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ breakdown of the “securities and investment” industry’s giving.
Even in the 2008 cycle, when he wasn’t up for reelection, Specter ranked 7th among Senate Republican recipients of Wall Street money, pulling in more money from this industry in the past two years than did either senators Saxby Chambliss or Elizabeth Dole, who were both caught up in tough reelection battles.
The Democrats’ favorite charge against Republicans—that they are too cozy with big business—is in reality equally true for both parties. But Specter is perhaps the coziest Republican with Wall Street.
Look at the other big business-big government votes of the last year, and you’ll never find Specter defying big business. Expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan at the request of the HMOs: Specter was with the HMOs and Barack Obama.
Obama’s massive stimulus bill backed by the Chamber of Commerce: Specter again sided with the Democratic White House and the big business lobby. The Detroit bailout vote last December: Specter cast his lot with General Motors. The Lieberman-Warner climate change bill: Specter took General Electric’s side in favor of the regulations.
With the exception of the stimulus bill, these were not maverick votes for Specter. He had significant Republican support on many of them, and the backing of the Bush White House or GOP congressional leadership on others. On many of these measures, especially Medicare, climate, and bailouts, the Democratic charge sticks—Republicans went along with big government because industry supported it.
Getting rid of Specter would not be a matter of purging dissenters or enforcing dogma, it would be an act of revolution. Kicking out Specter would be a rejection of the GOP’s recent course of bailouts and corporate welfare, and could be the rebirth of the GOP as a party that rejects government control because government control always benefits those with the best lobbyists.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, run by conservative Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., has already sided with Specter over Toomey. Will other Republican leaders follow suit, or will they steer away from the rocky shores corporate welfare?
Timothy P. Carney is The Washington Examiner's Lobbying Editor. His K Street column appears on Wednesdays.