Arlen Specter and the Case for Term Limits

President James Madison, considered by many to be the "Father of the Constitution" and author of over a third of the Federalist Papers, wrote that legislators should be "called for the most part from pursuits of a private nature and continued in appointment for a short period of office." President Abraham Lincoln stated during the Gettysburg Address "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."  No honest person would argue that both these presidents were not only brilliant statesman, but also possessed an intellect rarely matched. They would also agree that both men believed wholeheartedly in the importance of a citizen legislature.

But not even these great visionaries could have predicted the level of disdain for the political process as we are witnessing in Pennsylvania today.

Five decades ago, attorney Arlen Specter, a registered Democrat and rising star in the party, was on his way to becoming mayor of Philadelphia "when party politics blocked Specter's advance as a Democrat."  Ambition undoubtedly got the best of Specter, as it does most politicians, and he jumped on the GOP bandwagon to run for district attorney in 1965. He would go on to defeat the man who recommended him to serve the Warren Commission -- and in doing so launched his political career -- James Crumlish.

Immediately after his victory, Specter turned his attention to bigger things.  He set his sights on the mayor's office, only to be defeated in an election that took place just two years later. In 1976, he would once again aspire for higher office, only to lose the Republican primary race for U.S. Senate. In 1978 he would once again fail to capture the party nomination, this time in the race for governor.

Finally, in 1980, he made another attempt at the Senate, this time winning the GOP nomination and, ultimately, a general election victory on the heels of the Reagan Revolution.

But in the circle of life, there is no place like home.

After nearly thirty years in the Senate, Specter saw his political career coming to certain defeat in the primary. For the senior senator from Pennsylvania, this is now a political career that has come full circle. Once again it's time for Specter to make a political decision that has nothing to do with philosophy or principles, but selfishness.

This man who started out as a Democrat, but left that party to further his career, again found his days in office numbered. Reluctant to test his record with the people of Pennsylvania, he struck a deal with the opposition; so they can protect him, use their influence to stifle any real primary threat, and disallow their supporters to have a real say who represents them in next year's election.

As brilliant as James Madison was, he lived in a time when being an elected official was a part-time job. Our Founding Fathers were not just brilliant men with a dream, but they were farmers, blacksmiths, and merchants, who served the public out of love for country and worked hard for a living to feed their families. If Madison knew in 1788, when the Constitution was ratified, that the United States would be inundated with career politicians, at all levels of government, with similar stories as Arlen Specter, I am confident that he would have reconsidered the idea of term limits and it would have become part of our Constitution over 200 years ago.

Today there are men (outside of the halls of Congress) who understand the vision of our Founding Fathers and the importance of a citizen legislature. Paul Jacob, president of Citizens in Charge, recently used "Common Sense" to analyze the Specter incident and explain why term limits would have prevented Specter's political safety net.

"What most interests me, now, is that Specter's affiliation change shows how difficult it is to change currents in government. The old guard can flip, stay in power, and the power brokers switch chairs from friend to foe and vice versa," wrote Jacob. "If senators served under term limits, this whole issue -- and the problem it reveals -- would not even come up."

As an ardent supporter of citizen rights, I have struggled with the idea of term limits. If the people want to be represented by the same person for countless decades, they have that right. But the key phrase is "the people want to be represented by."

As Mr. Jacob points out "the old guard can flip, stay in power, and the power brokers switch chairs from friend to foe and vice versa."  It is because of the backroom deals, party control of primaries and how political opponents will work together behind the scenes to keep each other in office, that people don't have an honest voice in their representation.

The undeniable truth is that incumbency means protection. Similar to the syndicate, you are safe as long as the bosses are happy. In 2010 Democrats in Pennsylvania, most of whom would never dream of voting for Specter, won't have a choice in the primary. The party will see to it that, at worst, an unattractive candidate will challenge Specter simply for show.

When politicians feel they don't have to be accountable to voters because the political power brokers will protect them, the ideals of our Founding Fathers no longer exist. Term limits are by no means perfect, but they inject a level of honesty and accountability that has been missing from the American political system since before Arlen Specter switched from Democrat to Republican.

Paul Miller serves as Communications Director for the Sam Adams Alliance.  Opinions expressed are not endorsed by any organization and are strictly those of the author.