Arlen Specter was not, superficially, the sort of lawmaker associated with moderation or bipartisanship. He was a little cranky—irascible, as the journalistically-accepted adjectives went—and didn't give the impression of a soft-spoken, calm-inducing character who could bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans.
And yet Specter, who died Sunday of complications from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, indeed served an important bipartisan role. He worked on stem cell research legislation with Democrats, and supported the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in the military. The former Pennsylvania senator supported the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, but changed his mind and opposed it in 2006. He also changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat—a transformation that likely cost him his re-election in 2010. Those evolutions might be characterized as lacking in conviction, but for Specter, that was not the case. He had been a prosecutor before coming to the Senate—evident in his driving, tough questioning in committee hearings—and was willing to change his mind if the evidence warranted it. And when he quit his party, it was not because he suddenly opposed the principles of the GOP. It was because his party had become such an unwelcome place for moderate Republicans such as himself—a group derisively called "RINOs" (Republican In Name Only) by hard-line conservatives.
Specter had a more bipartisan voting record than many of his colleagues, but that wasn't the point. Bipartisanship, contrary to widespread belief (and campaign ads touting candidates' purported willingness to cross the aisle) is not about a voting record. By the time lawmakers go to the floor to vote, all the hard work has been done—the negotiating in committee and behind closed doors, the give-and-take that is necessary to any legislation. Specter didn't just vote sometimes with Democrats. He actually worked with them. What was tragic about Specter's party-switch was not at all what it meant for the party breakdown in the Senate, but what it said about the institution itself. By 2009, it was clear that senators had to choose sides—not on issues or legislation, but on party identification. That dynamic leaves one party winning, one party not winning, and the issues losing.
Specter was tough and no-nonsense (his recovery after having surgery for a brain tumor didn't surprise those who knew Specter—no cancer cell could stand up to the senator's don't-mess-with-me attitude, the theory went). But he was also solutions-oriented. His political loss in 2010 left the Senate with one fewer member with an eye towards solutions and compromise. His death is a loss for everyone who yearns for a more cooperative Congress.